Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Clear Sky

Tonight was the first time the stars had ever been so clear.

Today was a special day. A seven-year-old Sally stood in front of the school to share her dreams. "I want to be an astronaut," she began reading from her essay. The distinguished guest beside her had piloted two of NASA's missions already, and was here to visit his old elementary school. "I want to see everything that's out there."

Surely life hadn't seemed so simple back then, even to a second grader?

"Cool, I get a flightsuit!" exclaimed the exuberant fifth-grader. The first day of Space Camp was exhilarating, a flurry of goodbyes to parents and hellos to new friends and teammates. There was so much to learn for the Rocket Bowl on the last day. Team Intrepid was certainly going to win that competition. But in the meantime, there were simulators to try - the MMU, the 5 degrees of freedom chair, the 1/6 gravity chair. Space shuttle missions - Sally was going to be a mission scientist. And the zero-g wall! So much to do!

By seventh grade, the dream of becoming an astronaut had been pushed to the back. The desire was still there, but there were other things in the world that were so much more interesting. Friends, sports, and among academic subjects science, especially biology. But when night fell, she could still stare at the stars and watch for satellites, remembering what not so long ago was her only dream.

On the flat roof of a houseboat in the middle of the lake, surrounded by friends and family, fifteen-year-old Sally lay snug in her blanket. "Ooh, did you see that one?! That was a huge meteorite!" She smiled at the excited chatter of the six-year-old twins and scanned the sky for more, feeling more content than she had in a while. There was no light pollution out here in the middle of nowhere.

The stars had come to mean other things besides her dreams. They represented time spent with her dad, laying back in deck chairs in the wee hours of the morning, stifling yawns as they peered through the power lines for any signs of the Leonids.

When she was having trouble with adjusting to a new life in college, when she couldn't quite make it into whatever you tried out for, when work was getting tougher, sometimes all she needed was a friend to walk with her. At midnight, through the middle of campus, to try and find a terrace she had seen once before from which to gaze at the stars. She had to beware the sprinklers turning on as she walked through the grass, but otherwise, it bestowed a measure of comfort, a feeling of having your problems melt away. Honestly, they were so insignificant when you looked at the size of the universe and everything that could be happening - anything was possible out there.

Sally gazed out the window as the shuttle spun in its slow tango with the earth, bringing its partner into view. What were the chances? A neuroscientist was needed to study the effects of freefall on the brain? But it felt right, like this was where her choices had been leading her whole life. The stars were certainly clear tonight.

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