Gateway to Space Photos courtesy of Wits Astronomy Club
Sometimes, it is easy for me to forget how beautiful and exciting the universe is. You know how it is. We get so caught up in deadlines and hard work that we forget just why it is we are doing what we are doing!
Patrolling between the life-size and scale models at the Gateway to Space Exhibition
hosted at the Sandton Convention Centre, marching entire squads of children from spacesuit to spacesuit, memorising numbers and interesting facts, I am quick to forget just what it is I am dealing with here.
There’s a dreary tiredness to the air. The crowds are out in full force, and here we are, trying to keep a leash on a bunch of ten year olds who keep wanting to wander off and don’t always listen to what you have to say. To make it worse, everyone is getting in your way and grumbling that they have to move aside for a group of schoolchildren in the dark.
There are delays as people pose for photographs, and queues are getting painfully
longer at some of the more exciting exhibits, the children getting impatient and fidgety.
And we’re only halfway through the tour!
I am beginning to think longingly of the bed waiting for me after I clock out later today when looming out of the darkness comes this great hulking silhouette, pristine white and oblong, streaked with black paint. I can literally feel the awe as all the little souls around me, in their childish excitement, start screaming and feigning dizziness at the monstrous figure in front of them, illuminated by blinding white spotlights expertly positioned at strategic locations around the room.
This is the great Saturn V rocket, the most powerful rocket yet built.
11m long, easily 4 to 5m high, this 1:10 scale model towers over everyone around it, adult and child alike. I can see the strain etched on their faces as they try – and fail – to comprehend just what they are seeing. I try to remind them that the real rocket is 10 times this size, a whopping 110m in length, but a look of puzzlement stares back at me. I could try to explain just how powerful its thrust is but they have no reference point to compare this to.
Spaceships are indeed so alien to humans, even though they are so human in their design, that children, even with their fresh and imaginative minds, have no means to truly grasp them. These things aren’t natural, and probably won’t ever be. They will forever remain unknowable.
I desperately point out the only thing that I can think of that is easy to say, with no need to dumb down. “This is the rocket that took the first people to the Moon.”
And immediately I can see the comprehension dawning on their little faces.
Now they understand.
How could they not? Of course this is what it did! How could it do anything else, its sheer power evident now where before it was not.
“Ma’am? So where do the people go? Can they climb in it?”
“Yes. All the way up there, right at the very end, just below the tip. Can you see the little round window?”
I can see her eyes straining as they climb the never-ending contour of the massive rocket, searching for the pale blue circle. Eventually, they lock on to their target – but, no, that couldn’t be right. It was too small. How could the rocket possibly be so big?
“In there? What about the rest of the rocket?”
“The rest of the rocket is just for fuel. They need so much energy to get all the way out to the Moon that by the time they get there, most of the rocket is empty and has long since separated and been left behind. They only need that little tiny capsule at the very end to do what they need to do, the rest is just to get off the Earth.”
Her mouth hangs open, the words ‘United States’ reflected in her starry eyes. Without a split second’s hesitation, she says it:
“I want to go to space.”
“So do I.”
So should we all.
I’m alert now. Immediately, I can feel the exhaustion fade. Noise breaks out as children begin to clamour for attention, each considering their question more important than the last. This is why I do what I do. This is why I am here.
It is two hours later. My shift is nearly at an end. Before we can go for lunch, we are required to relieve one of the ride operators from duty. Today, I chose to take over duty at the flight simulator.
I’m standing at the head of the queue, my stomach grumbling, my mind beginning once again to wander elsewhere. An excited girl of twelve comes to stand in front of me. She’s polite and very talkative, but there’s something bizarrely captivating about her words. There is absolutely nothing about this place that she doesn’t find awe-inspiring. It doesn’t take long to hear what her dream is either:
“I want to be an astronaut!”
Immediately we are engrossed in a lengthy conversation about our aspirations. Everything she says feels oddly familiar to me, as if I am speaking to a younger version of myself. I learn how she wants to study Astronomy and she is really excited to hear that I’m already in my second year. We talk about what comes after, about how she wants to go overseas and get into astronaut school. In fact, she’ll be going over to America very soon to do the mockup run: space camp.
We talk about the many problems involved in realising this dream, how one needs to be a citizen and how South Africa just isn’t up for space travel at the moment, about how important it can be to get a pilot’s license, about the possibility of interning at NASA. Before long, her parents have walked over to us and are asking me endless questions of advice, wanting to know if they’ll be seeing the both of us up in the ISS one day.
There’s a tap at my shoulder and I am rather annoyingly scolded, told that I’m holding up the queue. The last simulation has ended and they’ve been wanting me to let the next six pilots through for a while now.
And just like that the conversation comes to an end – she hops into the pilot’s seat and begins mastering the controls; the parents stroll away to join all the other parents at the barrier, cameras poised to capture the moment.
I watch her carefully through the crowds for the next ten minutes or so, so incredibly happy to see this kind of passion in someone else. Nothing seems to faze her. Even when she fails to land the Space Shuttle, she grins like a fool – this is what she enjoys doing and even failure is an exciting experience.
I spend the next hour, perhaps for the first time, really watching all the children and their parents. I see mothers explaining exhibit signposts to their kids, children eagerly memorising Newtons’ Third Law, fathers taking endless pictures and selfies. All around me I see an enthusiasm for the universe, for exploration. This passion is intoxicating, addictive. I want more.
And then I realise this is all around us every day. It is inside each and every one of us, from the young to the old. We get to wake up each day and bask in the exhilaration of being alive in a universe as beautiful as our own. Just how lucky are we?
It shouldn’t take a towering pretend rocket to remind us of this. We only need to open our eyes and listen to the cosmos breathing around us. To truly hear the symphony of sound playing out around us every day. To marvel at the complex machinations in play that make the universe tick for us. We only need to wake up and smell the stuff of life, the stardust in you and me. To dream of what lies out there.
To dream of what it means to be human.