My space mission

My space mission

Today the shuttle program had it’s last launch. Like all kids I dreamt of being an astronaut. Or at the very least going to space camp. At some point most of us give up on those dreams but we still fantasize about being up there in space.

I wrote a short story many years ago about a trip to Huntsville Alabama’s Space and Rocket Center. At that time the Space Shuttle program coming to an end was the last thing on my mind. Even after watching the last launch today it doesn’t seem like it’s over. I hope the dreams stop.



With my wife curled up inside, I closed the car’s trunk.

It wasn’t going to rain on our vacation but it needed to be fixed. We thought it was a rotted apple wedged under the seat. Misplaced after a road trip. Then we realized it had been the dark musty trunk breathing into the rest of the car. There was no way I could ride around with that smell attacking us. So for a temporary remedy I bought it a grape flavored stick-up breath mint.

Still, if it did rain our luggage would get soaked. We needed to find the cause of the leak. So my wife decided to crawl into the trunk and search for the culprit with a flashlight. The simulated storm rang through the trunk and not a drop was found. I turned off the hose pipe.

I guess it was shock that I felt when I realized she still had the car keys in her pocket.

Black. Pitch. Millions of miles of total darkness in every direction, a void. Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Borman, Levell, Aldrin, these guys rode flames of liquid hydrogen to get out there. Some of them were in seats for 2 weeks. Somewhere around 13 days, 18 hours, 35 minutes 1 second: strapped in a seat. No little rooms, no curtain. There in the command module, right next to the other guy. You pull out your fecal containment unit and do your business. At least that’s what the tour guide told us.

You could see the Saturn V rocket from the road, miles away. A flashing light at the top. Our beacon. That’s when I realized it was gone. I took it out at work and left it there. Like I usually do with my keys, cell phone or sketchbook. We had left early from work on Friday, a little rushed.

I don’t remember the Statue of Liberty looking that big. The Saturn V Rocket. Armstrong had sat at the top of one of those babies, all the way to the moon.

Huntsville, AL: Home of the U. S. Space & Rocket Center. “The greatest collection of rockets and space memorabilia anywhere.” That is, according to their web site. I’d have proof, too, if I hadn’t left my digital camera at work. I may yet have proof, if the little point and shoot we did bring actually worked. Me standing in front of the Lunar Module, beside a SR71 blackbird, beneath the Saturn V. Holli sitting inside the Apollo trainer, inside the Space Shuttle’s booster. Provided we ever get the film developed.

For just 15 bucks you can buy someone’s lost trench coat. Fifty cents can buy you somebody’s copy of the Invisible Man, page still turned down from where they left off. Take your pick from other people’s shirts, shoes, purses and what not. Have some fun. Try to match your eyesight with hundreds of prescription glasses left in the overhead. It’s all for sale in Scottsboro, AL. This is after we left “Rocket City.” About an hour from Chattanooga, 5 hours before the whole found dead in our car thing.

The country’s largest final stop for lost luggage. The biggest discount outlet of unclaimed baggage in the United States. In the middle, there’s a “Museum” with special things too priceless to sell. A painting of The Unclaimed Baggage Center founders, an Egyptian artifact and a decomposing muppet. Hoggle was there, on display with several other goodies from the movie Labyrinth. I’d have proof if we weren’t out of film. If we hadn’t taken that shot of the under water space simulator. Or the one of me with my head sticking out above some military general’s body. No clue what that had to do with space & rockets.

On trips someone has to hold the camera. Those shots of “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon, they were all taken by Armstrong. All those shots you see of the moon landing, that’s the second guy. There’s only one picture of Armstrong. He was the first man on the moon and only has one picture to show for it. At least that’s what the tour guide told us.

Atlanta, GA; Huntsville, AL; Scottsboro, Al; Chattanooga, TN and then home.  We were supposed to stay the night in Chattanooga. Look around the city and drive back to Greenville in the morning. My niece wasn’t suppose to be sick and in the hospital. She wasn’t supposed to have caught some unidentified virus infection. I wasn’t supposed to spend all my money in the “Rocket City” comic book shops. So we decide to go ahead and drive home once we ate in Chattanooga. Roughly around 9:30 at night. Since I had mostly no money left, I had to get some quick help from my business partner and get a small loan

On a map, Chattanooga looks about 4 hours away from Greenville. The road read “scenic” but that just means pretty, right? Not 20 miles an hour, winding down the side of a mountain. Curving back and forth until your arms get tired. I kept telling her I was sorry. That I didn’t know “scenic” meant, “add 4 hours to your trip.” She said her arms were fine and that she just wanted to get home. No where on the map did it say “You’re stupid if you think you can drive this at 11 o’clock at night.” It didn’t say “scenic” meant “a road cut in the middle of the wilderness with no one around for hours.”

Black. Pitch. Driving down the road with miles of total darkness in every direction. A void. At the end of the ride it would feel like 2 weeks. Strapped in our seats, side-by-side.

They kept the debris till they got compensation. July 11, 1979, America’s first experimental space station, Skylab, comes crashing down in the Outback. We still owe Australia $400 dollars for the mess. We never paid. At least that’s what the tour guide said. She also said it takes astronauts 2 hours to take a bath on the International Space Station. That the astronauts call the toilet the “target.” That improper air circulation could cause suffocation. Supposedly a pocket of carbon dioxide can form around a sleeping astronaut’s mouth if the air isn’t dispersed properly. They smother to death.

Driving down the mountain I couldn’t remember how to breathe. This is after we passed the little yellow road sign that had a black square with white flecks. Holli and I both said “That’s strange, I’ve never seen that sign before.” Just then we see the next sign, carved in wood, sitting in the middle of a fork in the road. It reads “Highway 107 – 9 miles.” So we take a right down the one lane road. Oh, if you ever see that yellow sign, it means gravel road ahead. I’m pretty sure “Scenic” didn’t mean, “9 miles winding down a one lane, gravel road through the mountains at 10 miles an hour.”

Total darkness with nothing around you anywhere. You can’t even see the hand in front of your face, just you alone. Supposedly, this is what the Egyptians believed hell would be like.

Crawling down that gravel road, side-by-side, we could see as far as the car lights shined. My stomach clenched and I remember my heart shaking. My insides were hollow. Holli’s body forgot that she had needed to visit the little girl’s room over an hour ago. The pain had left. We may have broken a world’s record for longest drive down rocky one lane mountain road with breath held. Your body does strange things under stress. That was just the 1st mile.

Scientists have proven that exposure to vacuum causes no immediate injury. You do not explode. Your blood does not boil. You do not freeze. You do not instantly lose consciousness.

After 6 minutes I was ready to turn back. I was no longer sure if a quarter tank of gas would last 9 miles.  We read them out loud as they came up on the odometer. Holli had reset it so we could see how much further. If you watched, it didn’t move. So you had to glance at it casually, like you weren’t hoping it already said 9. The second mile lasted 4 days.

The Amygdala is the part of the brain that is involved in experiencing emotion and emotional memory. It sits next to the olfactory nerve. That’s why they say odor-evoked memories are unusually emotionally potent. I never again want to smell the cheap aroma of a grape air freshener.

Some time around the third and fourth mile we came across another sign. It was a warning sign. One lane bridge ahead. I think I remember laughing. The bridge looked as if it were made of some old painter’s scaffoldings. I don’t remember crossing over it. I just remember the road on the other side.

This is actually where we got a little relief. Somehow it was paved. The road was still one lane and windy, but it was paved. Then panic returned and firmly kicked relief out of it’s spot in the pit of my stomach. What if the rest of the road had been paved and people just don’t ever go this far? What if they got smart and turned around at the bridge? What if this would be the last mistake we would ever make and they’d find us dead in our car at mile 4? A strange sigh of ease washed over me as the road spilled back into gravel. Or perhaps I was gasping for air. We both said, “4 miles.”

Holli said, “Wonder what they’d think if we showed up at their door with a little book lamp as our flashlight?” That is if we found someone out here. If anyone lives out here they’d have to drive for hours to the grocery store. So I’m sure they’d be hungry or even worse (insert cliché Deliverance dueling banjo music here). I glanced over and sighed, “5 miles.”

At the U.S. Space and Rocket Center you can practice lunar landing. A moon mission video game from when the place opened in the 80’s. It looks kind of like asteroids. White lines on a black screen. You try to land on the moon adjusting your thrust and angle. Fall too fast and you crash into the moon. Holli and I swapped off after each Atari explosion. I landed it third try, missing the designated landing area completely. But still, I landed it. The screen read “You are hopelessly stranded.”

What if we get to mile 7 and there’s a tree down across the road. The guy who came up with the word trepidation must have driven down this road. Great agitation and anxiety caused by the expectation of danger: that’s the definition of trepidation. Dismay is a sudden or complete loss of courage in the face of trouble or danger. Abhorrence is a feeling of repugnance or loathing. I know the true meaning of these words. And we gasped, “6 miles.”

There are over 100,000 cell towers in the U.S. Not one exists on the “scenic” road from Highlands, NC, to Wallhalla, SC. At mile 7 I saw lights in the rearview mirror.

Jeff Odgers, also known as “The Sheriff,” has 2266 lifetime penalty minutes. It’s like spending 38 games in the penalty box. I’m talking hockey. He plays for the Atlanta Thrashers. That’s us sitting second row from the ice. The club section. The section where they bring beer to your seat. Great tickets via sister-in-law’s husband. This is Friday before all the “help we’re lost in backwoods Bumbhick Egypt” mess. Watched them glide across and smash into each other. Fearless. You’ve got to be some crazy talented bastard to play that game. I’m sure “the Sheriff” could breathe winding down this road.

I didn’t tell Holli about the lights because I knew the freak level would increase. I kept looking. I’m sure it was headlights but they were gone. We passed  our first mailbox shortly after that so my attention shifted. You’d think that would have made us feel a lot better. I don’t know about her but it just complicated the whole battle going on in the middle of my stomach.

You don’t think about what you’re doing to your body when you’re extremely tense. I think I released clenched muscles that I wasn’t sure I had. I didn’t remember wearing shorts then I realized where the rest of my pants had gathered. We had finally made it off that gravel road. It was a 2-lane road, highway 107. It even had the little yellow lines in the middle. Our mission of survival had changed to quest for fuel with an emphasis on the needed bathroom break of 2 hours ago.

The Wallhalla station where we bought gas didn’t have a working bathroom. The steam rose as I christened the side of the building near the dumpster. Holli got a cup of coffee and some relief at the Huddle House in Clemson. She didn’t want coffee, she just felt like she should buy something for the use of the facilities. It was 2:30 in the morning and I knew we were almost there. Home.

Holli and Renee are sisters. Both married a Chris. Each Chris has parents named Linda and Jim. A coincidence is a sequence of events that although accidental seems to have been planned or arranged.

Me telling the locksmith why my wife was locked in the trunk was hilarious to Bea. My grandma Bea bent over her front porch railing, laughing at the thought of it. We used her hose pipe to test for leaks. “Don’t you think this is funny,” Holli asked from inside the trunk. I didn’t tell her I had already been laughing. She had put the keys in her pocket right after she unlocked the trunk and crawled inside. I had the spare key. Hanging from my key chain, laying in my backpack, inside the car. Which was locked.

Jimmer, Mr.. Jim, Clyde, Jimmy, J.C. and George. Different people call him different names. Always have. Jimmer had made it just in time to see Holli crawling out of the trunk. She freed herself by flipping the lock mechanism. Saving me from explaining the situation to a locksmith.

When you’re young with a car living in Pendleton, South Carolina, a fun thing to do is find some field and start cutting doughnuts. A not so fun thing is secretly hiding in the trunk of that car. As a kid, back in 1951, they called my dad little Jimmy. His brother, Gordon, never wanted him to go anywhere with him. So one day Jimmy crawled into the trunk of Gordon’s 38 Ford Club Coup. There was a door to the trunk from the cab. His brother comes out and drives to pick up their cousin Ronnie. Doesn’t realize a thing. Jimmy soon starts getting thrown side to side. Lost in the darkness.

Those guys up there, they’re not lost. They’re on a mission. They risk their lives to go up there and perform scientific research, repair satellites and explore. Bravely and unselfishly. To find some answers. Journey to the stars and back. It seems like an everyday event these days. Until something horrible happens.


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