Mission in Space

By Wendy Rhein

There was a moment today when I could have sworn I was channeling my grandfather. I woke up very early, with my usual enthusiasm for the day (please God let’s get through this without bloodshed or broken bones. Amen.) but today I woke with a mission. A space mission.

When I was a kid, and into my teens, my sister and I used to spend part of every summer with my mother’s parents in Florida. Each summer they would load up their trailer with canned goods, hot dogs, saltine crackers and their minibar and off we’d trek to some far off destination full of mystery. Like St. Augustine. Or Charleston. And whenever possible, my grandfather would take us to space launches.

I have seen 5 launches of rockets or shuttles from Kennedy Space Center. I can tell you how even a mile away the ground shakes when the engines ignite. I can smell the ocean and fuel melding together. And I still feel the murmured excitement of hundreds of people gathering in pre-dawn darkness waiting to a “go/no go” call. For years after those summers, whenever there was a space launch, I would tell friends that I’d been there, I’d seen that. It is one of my most cherished memories of my grandparents and I am forever grateful that they thought exploration of any kind was important and that being a witness to history was valuable.

Spending those summer weeks with them wasn’t always easy but I am grateful for the countless memories of dinners in trailer parks, long days on the road, stopping for every historical site, picking oranges in their back yard and trying and failing to master my grandfather’s peach cobbler. Those memories are part of the reason that I get through the challenging times of having my own mother live with me and my sons. They know their Nana deeply and she knows them.

I was sad this year to miss the last space shuttle launch. I had grandiose Ideas of trekking my kids to Kennedy Space Center to stand near the spot I had so many times. But their ages, bottles, diapers, a work change, a move and my mother’s health all seemed to say that this wasn’t the right time, even when I knew it was the only time. I may have missed the final mission of the shuttle, but I didn’t miss the shuttle.

Today the Discovery flew over Washington DC, making its way to its new home in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center (or, as my 6 year old say, the ‘most secret museum on the planet.’) When I heard the shuttle was going to make a low fly by of the capital area including the Mall before heading to Dulles airport, I told my mother. She said exactly what her mother would have said: this is a once in a life time opportunity. We can’t miss that!

So at 6:45 this morning, I piled my mom and my 2 kids into the car with a packed breakfast, school backpacks, day care bag, work stuff and headed downtown. My mom entertained my kids with stories of her parents and their road trips, how she watched the launch to the moon on a 8 inch television screen with her whole second grade class in her living room since most people didn’t have televisions then.

We found a wonderful spot in a grassy park on the Potomac and waited with scores of others. Unlike the space enthusiasts of my youth, many of these folks were following the shuttle and its hosting 747 on Twitter and on a live NASA feed. Sam ran around chasing the ducks and coveting the extensive camera equipment. Nathan was thrilled to be near his favorite places in the world – the Lincoln and Washington Memorials. After an hour of anticipation, we watched in amazement as the shuttle flew over our heads, a mere 1500 feet off the ground. Incredibly, it made 2 circles over us and so we were able to see it four times. It was beautiful. Sam pointed at it and said “bird!” Nathan said he couldn’t believe he had waited his entire life to see something so phenominal. My mother cried.

I see my grandparents in her more and more as she ages. It is shocking, scary and empowering at the same time to be a witness to this last stage of her life while also witnessing the beginning of my sons’ lives. And somewhere in the middle, is me. I want to take the opportunities like today to be a witness, to mark these days and take note that together, we were part of something incredible. And I hope that one day my kids will tell their kids about the day their Mama and Nana took them to watch a space shuttle fly.

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Wendy Rhein

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