By Ann Williams
September 21, 2012 -- When I was a little girl, I knew space rockets were make believe, along with fairy godmothers and, probably, Santa Claus.
Maybe there was life on Mars. Maybe there were space aliens. Who knew? Who knows now?
Then when I was eight, the Russians sent a satellite up. The grown-ups got all excited, but I didn't. I didn't think Sputnik looked like much, just a metal ball with wires sticking out.
|The space shuttle Endeavour flies over the world-famous Ferris wheel at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica (photo courtesy of Pacific Park/Brandon Wise)
Then they sent up a dog named Laika. Nobody told me that she died in space, I found that out when I was a grown-up. I'm glad I didn't know, it would have ruined it for me.
Then we blew up a bunch of rockets trying to catch up with the Russians. That was exciting -- scary, but exciting.
The newscasters said the Russians didn't show their take-offs, they didn't want their people to know if anything went wrong. I guessed that made us better, and I was glad we showed ours anyway because I loved the thrill.
When we finally got around to sending a man into space we really didn't know whether or not he was going to blow up.
At school all of us sat Indian-style on the gym floor trying to see the TV they'd wheeled in for the occasion. I could barely keep from peeing and my fingers were crossed so tightly they hurt. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ignition, lift-off -- He made it!
Then he splashed down in the ocean. Orbiting the earth would come later but the lift-offs were always scary, and they always let us watch in school.
We didn't get to the moon until I was nineteen. I was engaged by that time, and my fiance didn't want to watch it. I had to fight to get him to turn on the TV in his depressing little studio apartment.
“We should be spending the money here on earth,” he said. He was always cheap that way. I broke up with him a few months later. Good riddance, I thought.
About a decade later, a group of us from Jet Propulsion Laboratories drove out to Edwards Air Force Base to see the Space Shuttle land. It was early in the morning but by the time we got there, we were drunk on beer and giddy with anticipation.
We had to walk a mile or two on desert hardpan until we came to a chain link fence that kept us off the base.
Nothing happened, then more nothing, then Boom, Boom and the fastest thing that any human being had ever controlled came falling out of the sky like a rock.
The Shuttle looped around and came at the runway way too fast but by some miracle it landed safely.
Now here I am in Santa Monica next to the ocean, waiting to see the last flight of the Shuttle Endeavor (or the flight of the jet carrying it, really).
A little girl with a pony tail wearing a fuchsia wet suit is jumping up and down, throwing handfuls of seaweed into the surf. I doubt she'll remember this, she's too little, but maybe her mother will take pictures of it to show her later. Maybe she'll go into space herself.
The sky is shrouded with cirrus clouds and vapor trails. The roar of the ocean sounds like a plane going overhead, making it hard to tell if the Shuttle's coming. Three surfers in front of me are standing knee deep in the water staring west. So are clusters of people up and down the shoreline. Most of them have cameras.
And then, it's coming straight at us. I don't mean sort of, or like it's coming toward Santa Monica, or anything.
I mean straight directly at the surfers and me.
Two little jets are right next to it and the jet with the Shuttle is flying slowly. It feels like it's a friend from long ago coming for me, an elegant white bird with black trim resting on top of the sturdy jetliner that goes right over my head.
I'm waving my cap, sure the pilot sees me. I feel grateful, like this is a gift.
“Right over us!” shouts the blonde-bearded beefy surfer in front of me. He's wide-eyed like a little kid.
And for a few moments, everybody's looking up, everybody's feeling joy.
Then it's over, at least for the moment -- it's going to fly toward the Ferris wheel in a few minutes, but this is enough for me.
I walk back to the bike path. A black woman with her baby in a stroller is sitting on the concrete ledge next to the path.
We grin at each other.
“In ten years there'll be space travel for everyone,” she says.
“I'm going,” I say.
“See you there,” she says.