Wednesday, September 18, 2013

R is For Rocket, S is For Space

When I was in elementary school—maybe third grade—I discovered Ray Bradbury through his anthologies of short stories "R is For Rocket" and "S is For Space." Of course, Bradbury was just a gateway author to others...Heinlein, Norton, Herbert, Vonnegut, Tolkien, Wells, Verne, Poe, Lovecraft...

But Bradbury had a special touch. He managed to seamlessly meld a nostalgic remembrance of an idyllic post-Victorian Midwest with an idealistic idealized future. I still periodically re-read 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' just to enjoy the essence of childhood he captures, and the wonder of small-town life at the edge of mystery and fear.

I thought of Bradbury, who died just last year, the other night.

I lay in bed next to my beautiful wife, watching a live video feed on the viewing computer (connected to a network of other computers that encircles the globe) perched on my lap. I was watching a rocket being prepared for a launch to orbit the moon. I could listen to the various voices giving their go ahead for the launch, one after another. Then, with the go-ahead given and a few minutes left before ignition, we both set our computers aside, put our shoes on, and left the house to drive up the road a mile or so.

There, with a clear view to the eastern horizon, we waited. After a few moments, we saw it.

A sodium-orange teardrop of flame, heading into the cold clear night sky. It looked like a flare from a gun, or a cheap firework. But it left an unmistakable trail of smoke through the darkness. And then it faltered and disappeared. A few second later, it flared up again, and another teardrop of flame arced into the sky...a parabola of light from where we stood, appearing to fly upward then sink back to earth again. But in reality, it was climbing ever moon-ward, gaining altitude by the kilometer as the rocket soared from Wallops Island across the Atlantic towards Africa, and eventually the Moon.

We saw the first stage, then burnout and separation, and second stage ignition and burn. It faded from our sight with the second stage still burning. When it was gone, we went back to our house and in a few minutes were asleep in our bed.

Today, from the parking lot at work, I watched another rocket leave the Earth. This one was not going to the Moon. This one was taking food and supplies to the Space Station that is currently orbiting our planet. Once it is offloaded, the Space Station crew will fill it with their refuse and send it all back towards earth to burn up in the atmosphere.

We really are living in the future. Nice call, Ray.

Postscript: What an interesting character. Ray Bradbury was discovered by Truman Capote, and was friends with Gene Kelly.

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