I wanted to be an astronaut.
Of course I did. I was a wide-eyed nine-year-old in 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, riding the Freedom 7 atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket on a 15-minute suborbital flight.
I had just reached double digits when John Glenn made three orbits in the Friendship 7 capsule, hurtled into space by an Atlas rocket.
Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter … for years I could name them all, name their capsules, and tell you how many times they circled the earth.
From Mercury to Gemini to Apollo’s moon-landings, I followed them all.
On Christmas Eve of 1968, I sat in awe while watching a grainy black-and-white image of the moon’s surface passing by as William Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman read from Genesis 1 on national television.
And, shortly after graduating from high school, I watched Neil Armstrong fumble his lines as he hopped off the Lunar Lander and said, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Inclusive language was not yet a thing.
I figured out early on that I was way too nearsighted to have any hopes of becoming a jet pilot on the way to the astronaut corps, but that didn’t slake my interest. I followed Spacelab in the 1970s, the proud Space Shuttle from 1981-2011, and the delivery/servicing of the amazing Hubble Telescope.
I keep up with every interplanetary mission, gazing in wonder at mind-boggling photographs from Jupiter and Saturn while checking in regularly with the Mars Rovers.
Things haven’t been so great on earth lately. We’re overheating the planet, exhausting its resources, and threatening the environment in multiple ways.
In America, we’re also fighting each other, sometimes hating each other, competing for power in an incredibly polarized society. Tensions are high in many parts of the world as nations compete for economic or military supremacy, and COVID-19 hasn’t helped anything.
Given the weight of all that, I was delighted to discover a recent documentary about the International Space Station (ISS) – one area in which Americans, Russians, Europeans and Japanese space agencies have succeeded in working together for the good of all.
“The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station” is a two-hour documentary directed by Clare Lewins that is available on Netflix with a subscription or for rent/purchase at Amazon Video, Google Play, or Vudu. It provided both entertainment and inspiration through three sessions on the elliptical walker for me, but it is well worth watching on the couch or computer, too.
The documentary skillfully interweaves science, international relations, and advances in space through personal interviews with space astronauts and cosmonauts as well as administrators and support personnel from multiple countries.
Many of them were kids like me, looking at the stars and following those magical early flights. Unlike me, they chose the long and arduous road of getting into the space program, whether on the ground or 250 miles above the earth.
It was encouraging to see how men and women from different countries learned to work cooperatively, to trust each other, and to live in close quarters for months at a time.
It was fascinating to see how different launch traditions and practices are between America’s Cape Canaveral and Russia’s Baikonur launch site, where hundreds gather at the foot of the rocket and the astronauts are showered with holy water by a Russian Orthodox priest, like it or not.
And then there’s the tradition started by Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, in which the bus stops on the way to the launch pad and astronauts (males, at least) get off the bus and undo their space suits sufficiently to urinate on a tire.
While ISS inhabitants fly 250 miles above the earth, below them are thousands of engineers, administrators, trainers, and support staff responsible for developing new technologies, building modules in different countries that have to fit perfectly in space, and coordinating the hundreds of things that have to go right every day.
These days, space tourism has become a thing for billionaires, but I’m confident that I’ll never float in zero gravity while marveling over the glorious view. Just watching video from the ISS is stirring enough, a reminder of how beautiful and how fragile the earth is, and how essential it is that we learn to get along with each other and work together for the benefit of all.
Down here, we need all the inspiration we can get. If you could use a dose of hope, check out “The Wonderful,” and let your spirit soar.