I sit, tense, breathless, eyes glued to the screen.
I am thirteen years old.
It is cold outside, the kind of cold that stings the tip of your nose and bites deep in your lungs when you inhale.
It is almost time. We’ve been waiting all morning. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, obsessively following the news for mention of launch preparations, reading Christa McAuliffe’s simple biography in The Inquirer: an ordinary history teacher, just imagine!
I’ve been lying awake at night, thinking about the infinite nature of space until infinity blew my mind and I couldn’t grasp the concept any more.
“Jordan, will you sit back from the television? You’re going to ruin your eyes.”
My mother, in a gesture of love and true understanding of my inner workings, has let me stay home from school. My father is at work, my sister at school—God forbid she misses a day of basking in her popularity—despite my mother’s offer to let her skip as well. It is just my mother and I, pajamas and mugs of cocoa even at eleven a.m., basking in America’s superiority over Russia and the limitless potential of travelling the universe.
The vestiges of Kennedy’s Space Race, the moon in our corner, the epitome of the country’s collective grit and sheer will.
I want to be an astronaut. More than anything in the world, I want to be an astronaut. I’ve got it all worked out, even as I attempt to navigate puberty and peer pressure and bad choices. I’m going to graduate high school with a scholarship to an Ivy League college, where I will be pre-med and graduate with honors, and then join the military so they’ll pay for my med school. I’m going to learn to fly and be an on-flight doctor, and then I’m going to apply to NASA’s Astronaut Candidate Program.
This has been the plan for as long as I can remember. I am a good student, a hard worker, disciplined, focused. I know what I want, and I’m sure I know what it will take to get there.
“What time is it?” I ask my mother impatiently.
“It’s 11:30. It’ll be any minute.”
The last time I would look forward to anything so guilelessly, so naively. The end of innocence, a swan song, the curtain call of childhood.
I sip cocoa, I fidget, I stare at the images reflected on the television: The launch pad at Cape Canaveral morphs into a stock photo of the NASA command center that’s replaced by a reporter, hugging herself against the unseasonable cold, describing conditions and sensations the astronauts will face over the next several minutes.
“Are you excited?” my mother says.
“Are you kidding?”
I don’t have to shift my face from the screen to know she is smiling, that she doesn’t mind my tone. I know they say a mother is always closest to her firstborn, that the second child is neglected in both attention and love. That’s not the case in our family, just like a lot of things are not the case in our family. My mother and I share a bond that is creepily extrasensory, that borders on clairvoyance or telepathy.
We did. Then I fucked up. It started that day, watching the Challenger.
“Do you know how proud I would be if I’m ever there,” my mother says, “in the crowd at Kennedy Space Center, waiting for you to take off?”
She supports my dream, perhaps subconsciously driven to counteract my sister’s grand, lifetime aspiration to amount to a supermodel and fitness spokeswoman. Every straight-A report card I bring home is prominently displayed on the fridge; I get a whole paragraph to myself detailing all my accomplishments in the yearly family Christmas newsletter. I’m excused from boring family get-togethers and church services if I “have to study.” I’m several grade levels ahead in STEM subjects, and even have a special “gifted” IEP at school that allows me to study trigonometry while everyone else works on binomials.
“You will be,” I assure her absentmindedly, practically manic with anxiety, with anticipation.
There is no doubt this will be me someday. I mean, I’ve been saving for space camp with all my birthday and Christmas money for two years. How could I possibly ever be anything but an astronaut?
“I think something’s happening, I think something’s happening,” I shout, up on my knees on the floor, directly in front of the television, unable to control the volume of my voice, my fingers clenched, my jaw clenched, ecstatic to be watching the Challenger launch with my mother behind me on the couch. It’s only us, gazing in wonder at the culmination of human brainpower to this point, the trophy of generations upon generations of evolution, the ability to explore space.
Three minutes appear on a giant screen, counting down, the seconds ticking away like little eternities, each number illuminated for a lifetime before finally surrendering to the next digit.
I squeal, my hands balled into fists, my eyes burning because I am forgetting to blink. At this moment, I am sure the universe is affirming my plans, my destiny. Just as I always have, I feel a pull, a calling almost religious in nature, toward the billions of stars and planets and moons out in the great beyond.
Christa McAuliffe wanted that, too. She wanted it, just like you wanted it. Imagine what her last moments were like. Do you think she had time to regret ever signing on to be a Payload Specialist before she died? Do you think she was alive when she hit the water?
The clock counts down.
Two minutes. One and a half minutes.
“Come on,” I shout at the television, believing I can speed up the process in Florida from my living room in Philadelphia.
The longest minute of my life. Except for many minutes which would come after takeoff.
“I love you, Jordan,” my mother says suddenly. I tear my gaze away from the screen to look over my shoulder at her briefly. She’s grinning, her eyes bright, unable to sit still as her hands flutter around her hair, her collar, her mug. This is just as exciting for her. I feel kindred, a flash of pride about having brought this joy into her life. At this moment, I am already an astronaut, just by the sheer weight of both of our beliefs—certainties—that it is what will come to pass.
Remember that time you thought you were going to be an astronaut?
“I love you, too,” I say happily, bubbling from within with exhilaration.
A minute. Forty-five seconds.
The clock is stubborn, exploiting time’s relativity, insisting on stretching the spaces between each second to impossible lengths. It ticks down, and the camera zooms in for a close-up of the shuttle, where things are starting to happen.
Challenger begins to tremble slightly and then shake in earnest, a vibration I can almost feel through the television, across the states and into my teeth. Smoke billows, and I see the flickering of flame.
Ten seconds. Five. Zero.
Against nature, against God’s design, in an awe-inspiring show of ability and triumph over the elements, Challenger takes off, rising up like a revolutionary, fighting gravity to lift its bulk upwards and upwards into the sky and through the atmosphere.
“Yes,” I shout, rising up myself, on my feet as if I’m taking off as well. I feel something foreign and natural at the same time, something I can’t begin to describe, but which I would later come to recognize as something sexual, the endorphin-rush of orgasm, an orgasm of possibility and expansion and the human experience.
It continues to ascend, smoke and fire trailing the shuttle like its own comet’s tail. I am already wishing I could see it enter the stratosphere, exit it, enter and exit the exosphere, enter open space. Everything in the world is as it should be. I am truly happy.
There is more fire and smoke, but also shrapnel, chunks of engines and rockets and ceramics and body parts and dreams. Challenger, disembodied, plummets to the Earth in pieces, like heaven is weeping the kibble of human invention.
There is no God.
“What?” I cannot grasp what is happening.
The debris hits the ocean at an unfathomable speed. Plumes of smoke still hang in the air like huge lazy clouds, the only evidence that seven people once lived their dream for 73 seconds.