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Star Struck : Growing Up With the Space Program

March 23, 1986|WILLIAM NOEL | William Noel is a writer living in Newbury Park.

The moon was laying its soft glow in a blanket over the world. I knelt on the living room couch with my nose pressed flat against the picture window, staring heavenward. I was 7. News of my father's transfer to Alabama to work on the space program had come weeks before, but that night the dream of putting a man on the moon had come alive for me. The moon seemed close enough to touch.

That summer we moved from the cool of Seattle to the muggy heat of north Alabama. Huntsville had been a sleepy cotton town before the space program transformed it. Everyone wanted to make an American astronaut the first on the moon. Beat the Russians. It was high-spirited, heady stuff. For each one working on the project it was much more than a job, it was a matter of personal pride. National success would be built on each worker's individual success.

Christmas Eve, 1968. Apollo 8 was circling the moon. My 84-year-old grandfather--who had seen the invention of just about every modern convenience and mode of travel--sat with us by the TV in silence, watching the surface of the moon sliding past the capsule window and hearing the astronauts read the Creation story from the Bible. He couldn't quite fathom it.

During the Apollo 11 mission we were in New York, on vacation. We'd stopped at a fruit stand on Staten Island; I stayed in the car, listening to the radio. An astronaut's voice was calling off the distance to the moon's surface. For a moment that seemed an eternity there was only the quiet hiss that interspersed the chatter between Mission Control and the spacecraft, then Neil Armstrong's voice intoned: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." I rolled down the window: "Dad! Dad! They've landed! They're on the moon! They're safe!" A dozen faces turned to hear a teen-ager shouting the news, and a ragged cheer erupted from all--except my father. The cheer and his heart had gotten stuck together in his throat, and tears traced down his cheeks.

More lunar missions followed, and then the space program settled into a routine. But the dream of space flight was alive in my heart, and after graduating from high school in 1973, I worked for a contractor that was designing portions of the space shuttle. I felt I was a part of history in the making. Years passed. I graduated from college in 1980; the space shuttle still hadn't flown. But when it did, I felt a sense of pride, knowing I had played a part in making it happen.

Then came the morning that Challenger took off on its final, 72-second flight. A co-worker rushed into my office: "The space shuttle just blew up." My mind flashed back over the launch-abort procedures. Surely the astronauts would be OK. We turned the TV on and waited, agonizing until the replay, and watched Challenger disappear in the giant fireball. I wanted to shout, "God, no !" But my words were choked in my throat by my heart and my tears.

The crew of the next space shuttle flight will probably be hailed as heroes staring potential disaster in the eye without blinking. Reporters will write of their mystical, inspiring courage -- a courage that springs, I think, from pure, childlike exhilaration, from the challenge of it all, from daring to gaze heavenward and dream.

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