When I was a kid, I was fascinated with space. I was obsessed with the idea of space stations and lunar colonies. I would borrow books from the library about what life would be like on other planets or how we could simulate gravity in space. I read crackpot theories about how faster-than-light travel might actually be possible and how we could mine asteroids.
When I was 9 years old, I thought a large portion of our population by now would be living on space stations so vast that we could grow crops and drive cars inside them. They would be giant wheels rotating to simulate gravity, and we would all have perfect lives in a clean environment.
Maybe these fantasies were simply a product of the times. I was a kid in the ’80s, and the country was still high on NASA’s achievements. It was less than 20 years after we had walked on the moon. We had the space shuttle, and the Voyager probes were sending back exciting data.
There was no end to the books and movies telling me that we were on the cusp of a new age of exploration. A trip to EPCOT Center in 1985 only confirmed that impression. The whole theme park seemed like one of those huge space stations I’d imagined brought to life. The exhibits promised a future in which anything would be possible with our rapidly developing technology.
That Christmas I asked Santa for a telescope, and he delivered.
It was my first inkling that space exploration was hard. Admittedly, it was a cheap telescope, and I certainly didn’t know how to make the best use of it. Still, I couldn’t find anything in it. I could barely get it pointed at the moon, and when I did, I couldn’t keep it in focus. I tried to find planets, but that proved nearly impossible. I was extremely disappointed. In a couple weeks, I accidentally broke it, and that was that.
A few weeks later, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and the whole mood of the country seemed to shift overnight. Space became dangerous, and the benefits of exploring it began to seem dubious. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no longer a big push to be the first to do anything in space. Our national gaze shifted earthward, and that was true for me, as well.
Then my daughter started asking me to point out the constellations. Last Christmas she asked for a telescope. Santa delivered a little nicer scope this time. We assembled it, but it sat unused in our house until this week. It finally got warm enough for us to take it outside in the evening. It took a little adjusting — and we’re still tweaking it — but we got it focused on the moon.
Her reaction took me back to my childhood. “I can see craters! I can see shadows of craters!” She was jumping up and down, and her face was beaming almost as brightly as the moon.
Her joy was the joy of discovery. It was a reminder to me to never lose my fascination with the world and the universe around us, to never stop trying to learn and see something new.
It was a reminder that moments like that are one of the things that make life worth living.
The 9-year-old kid in me woke up and started wondering where his ticket was to the nearest space station.
Maybe my daughter’s generation will find out.