Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Last Flight

A few days ago the space shuttle blasted off for what would be its final flight. From now on, we'll rely on the Russians to get us to the International Space Station. There's no new project on the horizon - no trips to the Moon or Mars. To be honest, I'm in a state of mourning. What will happen to us, now that our dreams of space have been allowed to die?

The space age and I were born almost at the same time. I was four when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1. I was eight when Alan Shepard piloted his Freedom-7 capsule into the stratosphere, becoming the first American, and the second human, in space. I vividly recall sitting on the floor in our crowded school cafeteria, watching the flight on the black and white television hung up near the ceiling. I couldn't take my eyes off the grainy images. It was the one of the most exciting moments of my young life.

That was the moment when I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. I was already reading science fiction; I knew the path I'd chosen would require intelligence, courage, determination and a spirit of adventure. Certainly I could offer all those qualities. What I didn't have, I later learned, was the perfect eyesight needed for a career in space flight. (My uncorrected vision is so bad that in some states I'd be legally blind.) I decided to become a scientist instead, but I never lost my fascination with the stars.

A month or so ago, I finally published my first science fiction work, an erotic romance novella entitled "Bodies of Light". I poured a lot of my self into this story. I was there with my heroine Christine when she awakened in deep space, to discover that she alone, of all the crew of her interstellar ship, had survived. I sucked in my breath along with her as she opened the viewport on the bridge and was confronted for the first time with the vast emptiness of space. When she donned her pressure suit and exited the air lock to repair a breach in the hull, I floated weightless by her side, tethered to the ship and to life by a single fragile cable. I gave to Christine's grandmother my own memories of Alan Shepard's triumphant ride into the unknown.

Yes, "Bodies of Light" is a highly personal story, in a different sense than much of my other work. It's pretty common for me to use some erotic experience or relationship of my own as a starting point in my romances. Not this story. The romantic aspects are completely fantasy, though I hope they're convincing. The setting, though - the billions of miles of near-vacuum stretching between the stars - the claustrophobic confines of a starship - these are places I've visited many times in my imagination.

I'm fifty eight now. Space tourism is on the horizon, but I realize that I may never the opportunity to fulfill my childhood dreams of the stars. That's okay. Now that I'm a writer, I have the ability to make them real in a different way - for myself and for my readers.

Still I feel a sense of grief as the shuttle program winds down - or sputters out. We've lost something important, I believe. A sense of adventure, of possibility. Is it just me? Am I being silly, impractical? Politicians these days we tell us we can't afford to have a space program. Personally, I think we can't afford not to.

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