“In the year 1987, NASA launched the last of America’s deep space probes.”
– Buck Rogers
I used to fly space ships. I’d take a joystick, an old computer keyboard, a few drink coasters and a G.I. Joe – for luck – array them around my chair in a semi-circle, dim the lights and get comfortable. The stick-on stars overhead, my destination. These journeys could last hours or minutes, but each time I was flying outward and away. Space being more interesting than life. I’ve always been a dreamer, and space, with its endless frontiers and boundless possibilities, served as the launching pad for my imagination.
Sometimes I’d do it the old-fashioned way, leaning a chair on its back in a closet, putting on headphones or my brother’s football helmet and counting backward from 10. I could almost feel the rumble of the rocket booster echoing in the enclosed space of my capsule and hear the reassuring voices from Mission Control, assuring me the mission was on track, reminding me to switch the switches, turn the knobs and watch the dials, none of which existed anywhere other than in my mind.
I didn’t know enough about space to know where I was going, why I was going there or who I expected to meet. That was part of the fun of it. Space was a blank slate. An empty vessel waiting for me to fill it. Schrodinger’s dream.
“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.”
– The Last Starfighter
Perhaps more than any generation, mine dreamt of going into space. We’d never known a time when such a thing wasn’t possible, never seen a world in which men traveling in space wasn’t an accepted fact of life. And if the men on TV could do it, went the logic, so could we. Flying in space was our birthright. It was our internet. Our right to vote. Our drive-thru hamburger. Older generations had their space dramas, science fiction epics in which man conquered the stars. Our generation’s space dramas were science fact.
Our fathers had done the hard work, believing the impossible dream, cheering John Glenn on his first few trips around the Earth, the Geminis who followed and the Apollos who landed on the moon. Ours was a world in which these great trials were distant memories. Ours was a world in which the launch was only the beginning, the first step toward the real adventure. We had space stations, orbital telescopes and shuttles. To us, space was like water, and we swam in it and dreamed.
Unsurprisingly, astronomy was my favorite subject. But the more I learned about space, the more unrealistic the dream became. And worse, space, as presented on TV, in NASA briefings and educational pamphlets, seemed boring. It was a perverse reversal of the intention of the National Commission on Excellence, who in 1983 released their report finding America’s youth were in trouble, that developing nations – and the Soviet Union – were leaving American children in their wake when it came to science and math.
NASA sprang into action, showing young people science could be fun, using space as the carrot, communist invasion as the stick. As a result, millions of American children got their first taste of space – real space. Careers were launched and dreams brought into being, built on the foundation of science taught in classrooms, but for me these classes had the opposite effect. Real space wasn’t spacey enough for me. As an ex-girlfriend would later put it, I was more in love with the idea than the reality.
Shuttle missions, which had once seemed like a magical, mysterious journeys became little more than routine, business-like affairs. There were no aliens, no anomalies and no rocket ship chases through the rings of Saturn. It would take years to even get to Saturn, I learned, and any “chasing” would be pretty long-term. The space I came to know, with its interminable distances and near-impossible living conditions, was not the space I wanted it to be. When I was young and dumb, flying in space sounded like the most exciting journey imaginable. As I grew older, it felt more like taking a Greyhound bus to nowhere. The stick-on stars dimmed. The dream diminished.
And then the shuttle blew up.
“Obviously a major malfunction.”
– NASA Launch Control
My mother and father used to talk about where they were when The President of the United States, Mr. John F. Kennedy, was shot. They both lived in the Dallas area, but neither was in Dealey Plaza to watch his motorcade. Like most young people, they weren’t interested in politics and probably didn’t have much of an opinion of Mr. Kennedy, good or bad. But when he was shot, that was something worth paying attention to.
In those days, shooting a president, hell, shooting anyone, was almost unheard of. There just wasn’t the same nonchalance about gun violence in 1963 as there is today. And the president … he was respected, if not revered. Hurting him was hurting the country. Few people would have even considered it. But someone did consider it, and then pulled the trigger. Lives changed that day. Some say the fabric of our nation changed that day. Certainly the belief systems of a lot of young people who’d never thought such a thing possible changed that day. Perhaps not for the better.
The Challenger is to my generation what Kennedy’s death was to my parents’. I remember where I was. I was in school, watching the launch on TV. There was a teacher on board the shuttle, and she was planning to add to the National Commission on Excellence’s seemingly endless supply of “interesting,” science-based educational opportunities. Which, to me, sounded like adding an extra circle to hell. I wasn’t really paying attention. And then I was.
The shuttle took off just fine. My teachers had tears in their eyes. Perhaps they saw a shadow of their younger selves on that shuttle. Perhaps that was their dream. Perhaps they were just happy their profession was getting the attention it deserved.
The shuttle arced into the sky, rolled over and got the command to throttle up its engines. The shuttle’s commander acknowledged the command and complied. And then his ship exploded, killing all six of his crew, himself and my dream.
The silent, joyful tears turned to screams, and then all of the adults quickly left the room. My fellow students and I were left alone to ponder the meaning of these events as the footage of the explosion was played over and over. Flaming bits of something trailed off in different directions, every direction it seemed except up.
That was the day I closed the door on my dream, the day I fell out of love with space – real space. In my space you don’t blow up before you even get there. In my space, O-rings always work.
“The Empire is on the verge of success. Soon, peace and order will be restored throughout the galaxy. Even now our capable forces, led by Darth Vader, are striking back at the Rebel insurgents.”
– Star Wars: TIE Fighter
I bought a computer, my first computer, in the summer of 1994. I’d saved up for months. I brought it home in a huge box, and before I’d even unpacked it, went back to the store to buy two more items: a joystick and a copy of TIE Fighter.
I unpacked the computer, set up my desk with the joystick directly in front of me, the keyboard slightly to the left, a few drink coasters to the right, and small statue of Isis – for luck. Then I flew a space ship for the first time in almost a decade.
Over the years I’d learned even more about space. I learned how the lack of gravity in space can make your bones weak; how artificial gravity is a pipe dream; and that even little things, like brushing your teeth, are almost impossible. I watched astronauts struggling to use basic tools with their bulky suits, assembling a space station more than 200 miles above the planet. I learned that even a minor flaw in a giant mirror could render billions of dollars worth of astronomical equipment useless. And that math errors could crash a probe.
The more I learned about space, the less I missed the dream of going there. To real space, anyway. And, conversely, the more I wanted to be back in my space. TIE Fighter took me there, but it was only the first. A succession of space games followed – Descent, Wing Commander and Privateer – each putting me in the cockpit of my own machine, each giving me a window on my dream of space, not as it is, but as it should be.
Then I played Mechwarrior 2, and at the helm of a new kind of machine, a robotic, world crushing tank, battling enemy mechs on the surface of the moon, I saw a sight I’d never thought I’d see: the Earth from space. As Neil Armstrong and his fellows could probably tell you, it’s a sight that never gets old, even in digital form. That was more than 10 years ago. Just last fall I saw it again, piloting a machine over a ridge on the lunar surface in a game called Mass Effect, and it was just as astonishing as I remembered, better even, in HD.
I’ll never have space as the astronauts know it, but I’ll always have my space – my own private outer space – the space that exists only in my mind, kept alive by people like Roddenberry, Lucas, Whedon and the makers of all those fantastic games. And in my space, the launch is just the beginning, and there is no “The End.”
Russ Pitts is Acquisitions and Production Manager of The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.