Lifted toward a shared future
It is another hot August day in Florida. The sun sits high overhead, turning the Indian River into a dazzling hoard of jewels, a treasure fit for a king. In the distance, over at the Kennedy Space Center, the Vehicle Assembly Building stands sedately, while to its left, launch complex 39A shimmers in the heat.
In a few moments, STS 105 will leap skyward, carrying seven astronauts to the International Space Station. I have come to Cape Canaveral with my family to witness this event. We thought watching a spacecraft fly would be cool and educational.
How many times does a parent get to do something that combines both of those qualities?
I had high hopes, but experiencing a launch firsthand went way beyond all expectations. Let me share a few mental snapshots.
Languages: There are people here from all over the world, speaking various languages. I recognize Italian, Spanish, German, Japanese, and English in all of its elegant dialects - British, Irish, and Australian.
As the countdown approaches zero, the languages become musical and harmonious. Not only is this flight headed to the International Space Station, it is also creating an "international shuttle launch viewing station" as well. And the bonus: Even though I don't speak many of the languages that surround me, I do understand what people are saying. It's all written on their faces. Joy. Apprehension. Wonder. Inspiration.
Powerful emotions create an international language, breaking down barriers and pulling down walls.
Children: Hundreds of children are here today.
In front of me sits a man from Minnesota with his teenage son. I take their picture, framed by the shuttle, moments before liftoff. The scene is repeated countless times all over this narrow strip of land.
Kids throw balls, dogs bark, girls sing. This is a family event. Parents and kids pile their hopes for the future on board this spacecraft. It's a valuable payload.
As the launch draws near, I feel closer to my own children, and I long to give them something to carry with them into a future I will never see. And here, at this moment, I know that I have.
Ambience: A man parks cars near the beach. "My property, " he claims. "Ten dollars."
Two teenage boys hawk pizza: "Cheese and pepperoni: $8. Best pizza around."
Three helicopters hover overhead, the wash of their blades making conversation difficult. Traffic on Highway 1 speeds by, the pulse of modern society. No stopping. No watching. Someplace else to go.
Fish jump out of the water, their silver bellies glinting in the sun.
The launch time is moved up in a race against approaching thunderclouds.
In less than a minute, the engines of the rocket will come to life. All around, people whisper reverently, sharing stories, straining to see. A car radio broadcasts the countdown. The tension increases as the numbers decrease.
And then, that unmistakable roar of the boosters as billows of smoke and flame erupt before our eyes. The shuttle is airborne.
We know the astronauts feel several times their weight at liftoff. As the rocket rises into the bright Florida sky, the crowd begins to clap and cheer, as though a great weight were being lifted from them. My eyes are stung by tears as I strain to follow the shuttle's ascent.
In a few moments, it is miles overhead. The assembly cheers again as the solid-rocket boosters separate. The Shuttle Discovery pushes ever upward.
As my international shuttle launch viewing station breaks up, I turn back to breathe in the moment, the perfect moment, when the delicate mix of humanity was blended by our common aspirations and stirred by the rising fire of today's shuttle flight, rocketing toward space.