A Bigger Part Of Me

January 18, 2011
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Claustrophobia and astronauts don’t mix. The helmet over my head was a fishbowl and I was the guppy peering out. The tiny space capsule, even with its many windows, was worse than being in the trunk of a compact car. There were two minutes until liftoff, and the crew of the Challenger 17, with me as the pilot, was preparing to launch. We walked onto the rocket, into that miniscule capsule we would be calling home for the next two months. All those people waiting to see history being made: astronomers, thrill-seekers, and field trip members alike roared, but I barely heard them. I was high above them, both physically and emotionally, my chin held high as I tried to mentally prepare myself for the coming weeks.

I crawled into the tiny space capsule that had come to replace the space shuttle. It was cheaper, faster, more cool-looking than its predecessors; however, it was small. Actually, to a claustrophobic, 23-year old astronaut, it was absolutely terrible. Petite, tiny, a little house to an ant; you get the picture. But this was my job, a job that few people my age had, few people any age had. I didn’t go through all those classes to chicken out at the last minute. So I strapped myself into the rollercoaster harness-like seat and distracted myself with looking at the many buttons, switches, and knobs, each with its own little blinking lights that the seat had restrained me face-to-face with.

At this point, the rest of my crew had gotten into their seats, and I could hear the countdown beginning. My heart pounded faster than the speed of light, my stomach was practicing acrobatics, and my small breakfast was threatening to make a second appearance.

Five seconds to go. There was no turning back now.

Four seconds to go. People had gotten out their cell phones and cameras, just to capture the launch of the first flight to Mars.

Three seconds.

Two seconds.

I looked out the window, saying goodbye to my beloved Earth, just as I heard--

One second.

It was like one of those dreams when you’re falling, but in reverse. The cheers of the crowd mingled with the blasting in my ears. My stomach had been thrust to somewhere around my ears, and the force and speed of the rocket was shaking and banging my head against my fishbowl helmet like I was having a seizure.

Finally, we had broken the barrier of the atmosphere.
We were in space.

It was quiet here. All that ever is, was, or ever will be didn’t seem to matter. This place was yesterday, today, tomorrow. Time, life, death, love. A breath-taking void that just begged to be explored. Stars, twinkling like fireflies, shone at me from all angles.
Fireflies. I remember…

A bonfire happily crackling away on a quiet, peaceful midsummer night. Jumbo marshmallows cooking away, speared on a stick. Once squished in a blanket of graham cracker and chocolate, it’s transfigured into a symphony of joy dancing away on your tongue. The stars, merrily twinkling away, provokes a question from the 5-year-old girl.
What were those things called stars really, up in the sky? Undiscovered planets? The souls of those people who made it to heaven? An old raven-black blanket, placed over the earth to say good night by some invisible force, but small holes had punctured, letting the light shine through?
Pictures gradually emerged: a pot, a stick figure doing jumping jacks, a big W. After a few classes, years later, she would have names for them: the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia. She longed to solve that massive connect-the-dots puzzle with sharp, deliberate crayon marks.
The girl makes a decision. A decision that will determine the course of her life. This realization, dawning on a child at the tender age of 5, which would carry this girl on a journey to leave her mark on the world. She would change those words in science textbooks that proclaimed, “No person has set foot on any planet outside of our atmosphere.”
She would be an astronaut, voyaging through space, uncovering what was once hidden, what one couldn’t see from the blurry space-telescope images, or what was possible to make out in the images produced by Earth-based computers. This girl was determined.
Only one thing could distract her from planning out the rest of her life, a distinctly smoky smell. It was the broiled marshmallow, now no more than a piece of coal, smoking and charring on the end of the stick.
But she still has the skies above to bring her back to her train of thought. A familiar tune emerged in her head, a song that would be her rock, that simple, childish thing she clung to through the stormy trials of life: Twinkle, twinkle, little star: how I wonder what you are…

After my stroll down Memory Lane, a beeping from one of those many buttons yanked me out of my phantasm. Bringing me back to here, where my services were needed, it was like an alarm clock after a very short nap. I had to get up and face my present task, although the past few minutes were peaceful. I had made a promise to that little girl, that little girl who later became me. It was up to us, working together, to fulfill our lifelong dream.
Those tiny specks of airborne glitter twinkled at me, so much clearer now that I had escaped the polluted atmosphere. The tiny holes in the blackness engulfing me pledged themselves to me, me and that girl. They would be our companion through this journey through the abyss, the unexplored void. Just like the sailors of long ago, I found my North Star, just at the tip of the picture I now had a name for. My never-changing star-friend Polaris winked at me. I was again reminded of that child’s tune, making me realize that I really didn’t know exactly what those stars were, what it was like to be near them. I wasn’t afraid; I was anticipating the unknown. I was determined, I had a dream that I would go to infinity and beyond to make it come true. Maybe that little girl made up a bigger piece of me than I thought.

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