"In the year 1987, NASA launched the last of America's deep space probes."
- Buck Rogers
I used to fly space ships. I'd take a joystick, an old computer keyboard, a few drink coasters and a G.I. Joe - for luck - array them around my chair in a semi-circle, dim the lights and get comfortable. The stick-on stars overhead, my destination. These journeys could last hours or minutes, but each time I was flying outward and away. Space being more interesting than life. I've always been a dreamer, and space, with its endless frontiers and boundless possibilities, served as the launching pad for my imagination.
Sometimes I'd do it the old-fashioned way, leaning a chair on its back in a closet, putting on headphones or my brother's football helmet and counting backward from 10. I could almost feel the rumble of the rocket booster echoing in the enclosed space of my capsule and hear the reassuring voices from Mission Control, assuring me the mission was on track, reminding me to switch the switches, turn the knobs and watch the dials, none of which existed anywhere other than in my mind.
I didn't know enough about space to know where I was going, why I was going there or who I expected to meet. That was part of the fun of it. Space was a blank slate. An empty vessel waiting for me to fill it. Schrodinger's dream.
"Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada."
- The Last Starfighter
Perhaps more than any generation, mine dreamt of going into space. We'd never known a time when such a thing wasn't possible, never seen a world in which men traveling in space wasn't an accepted fact of life. And if the men on TV could do it, went the logic, so could we. Flying in space was our birthright. It was our internet. Our right to vote. Our drive-thru hamburger. Older generations had their space dramas, science fiction epics in which man conquered the stars. Our generation's space dramas were science fact.
Our fathers had done the hard work, believing the impossible dream, cheering John Glenn on his first few trips around the Earth, the Geminis who followed and the Apollos who landed on the moon. Ours was a world in which these great trials were distant memories. Ours was a world in which the launch was only the beginning, the first step toward the real adventure. We had space stations, orbital telescopes and shuttles. To us, space was like water, and we swam in it and dreamed.
Unsurprisingly, astronomy was my favorite subject. But the more I learned about space, the more unrealistic the dream became. And worse, space, as presented on TV, in NASA briefings and educational pamphlets, seemed boring. It was a perverse reversal of the intention of the National Commission on Excellence, who in 1983 released their report finding America's youth were in trouble, that developing nations - and the Soviet Union - were leaving American children in their wake when it came to science and math.