Last week saw several memorials to fallen astronauts, beginning with what may be the last “official” gathering to remember the crew of Apollo 1, who were lost in 1967. None of these lives were lost in vain, which is easier to say if you did not have a friend or family member among them. Still, such people as Gus Grissom or Judy Resnick or Mike Anderson cause us groundsiders to look up and wonder, and try a little harder, and remember that the Earth is a very small place. They helped all of us take tentative steps toward the promise of a better future. And in that, I think, is their memorial. Worlds without end.
Below is a short story I wrote a few years back during the flight of STS-135. It was published in the anthology magazine Infinities 4 in 2011.
It wasn’t a very big telescope, as telescopes went. It was a stout barrel and it held a ten inch lens. That sounded impressive unless you compared it with the big professional telescopes at places like Kitt Peak, Mount Wilson, or that astronomer’s paradise known as Mauna Kea. So be it, it was the resource we had and like all resources Uncle Ty put it to good use. You could always count on him to do that, scavenge a thing declared useless and then turn it into gold.
He had found the big Meade at a garage sale, sitting forlornly amid lawnmower parts and plastic storage bins. A lifelong amateur astronomer, he paid the asking price of $500 and opted to eat potatoes, beans, and toast for the rest of that month. Never married and 57 years old, the single life allowed such impulses. That had been some years ago. Other budgetary as well as gastronomic sacrifices allowed him to accumulate a collection of hardware and instruments: all astronomical both in price and end-use. Ty asked a perplexed buddy who owned a Sawz-All to cut the roof off an old shed that sat in the far corner of his backyard. Once rollers and weatherproofing were added it made a very neat and passable observatory. He could be found there most evenings when he wasn’t working some night shift at the nearby paper plant.
As we lived on the adjoining property my sister and I got to visit him often. The winters were a bit more challenging than the summers, but at least when it was cold the bugs weren’t biting. And, oh, how those winter stars burned in the sky! Uncle Ty taught us the names of almost all of them. My mother, Ty’s baby sister, would insist we not stay out too late. But the siblings had worked out a call system via the intercom Ty had created between our houses. Thus, unknown to us until much later, our arrivals and departures were well-monitored.
One summer, Uncle Ty had alerted us for several days to the thing that would be in the sky that night. It was always some surprise: a comet or planet or oddball piece of space junk. And typically fuzzy, even in a telescope as large as Ty’s. You had to squint or look out the side of your eye or even imagine what he described. Sometimes wonders, Ty would joke, and sometime blunders.
Yet some of the planets he showed us burned into the back of your mind: ruddy Mars with its pale ice caps, crescent Venus, striped Jupiter and once even a tiny, embryo-like Saturn with razor-sharp rings. And he could find little jewels of stars or clusters of fog or bright new suns that clung together like orphaned children. Thus we ran greedily down the footpath that led from our big old house to Uncle Ty’s trailer. Above us the sky stood clear and bright and the backbone arch of the Milky Way curved from east to west. All those marvels above would soon be siphoned down through the lens of Ty’s telescope.
Just for us.
We rounded the trailer and past his antique Olds Delta 88. The lights inside the trailer were dimmed by a rheostat. Yet as we passed the aluminum-framed windows you could see his Hall of Fame. Colorful patches lined the walls just beneath the ceiling. Each was no more than 4-inches across but all were miniature works of art. They were mission patches from NASA projects like Gemini and Apollo and a big tin can with a windmill that had been called Skylab.
The bulk of the patches were for the Space Shuttle. We all knew about that. Our science teacher had a little model of the winged space ship in her classroom. The shuttle rode into space on five rocket motors and clung to the back of a fuel tank that was painted the color of a Florida tangerine. When its trip was done it came back to Earth like a glider. Two space shuttles had been destroyed. My buddy Glenn really latched on to that fact. He admired anything that blew up. Otherwise he hated science class.
“Hey Ty!” my sister and I called as we ran past the tall hedges and up to the observatory. Ty poked his long horsy face out the door. In the red light he used to protect his night vision he looked lean and gaunt. On Halloween you might have said spooky. His crooked smile dispelled any scariness. Even Camille, my kid sister, wasn’t scared of the observatory and all its weird equipment anymore.
“Hey Joe, hey Cammie,” Ty replied. When we were alone he didn’t mind if we didn’t call him “uncle.” At twelve it made me feel like we were all grown-ups and on an equal footing. But when Mom was around we called him Uncle Ty otherwise she would pitch a fit. Mom was a big churchgoer, and by default had high expectations regarding our level of manners when it came to kin or strangers. ‘Nuff said on that subject, I suppose.
“Can you see anything yet?” I asked.
“Soon. I have everything lined up,” Ty said in a baritone that seemed as smooth as the purr of the car engines he was always working on. He had two Oldsmobiles that were over 40 years old. He kept their big V8s in mint condition. When winter hit the North Country he’d park them in storage until the twin demons of snow and salt went away. Occasionally the VFW would ask him to drive one or the other in a village parade.
He called the old cars Challenger and Columbia. After the two shuttles, of course. Framed photos of the lost crews from each ship hung in the little observatory. I often studied those faces. They looked like brave people, but also kind. Scientists and pilots who were also moms and dads, aunts and uncles. Something in their eyes made them sort of young-looking, even if they were really old people. I don’t know how else to describe them.
“Just waiting for it to drop into view,” Ty said and then looked toward the western horizon. This early in July you had to stay up late before the sun’s light was totally gone from the sky. A smudge on the horizon was all that remained of the sun now. Stars owned the night. And something else…
“Is that it?” Cammie asked. I marveled. She was getting better at spotting things in the night sky than me! Her count for meteors totally outstripped my own, even allowing for the few that we both made up when the other’s back was turned. Meteors were lightning-quick. Like stray thoughts or memories from when you were very little.
I looked in the direction she was pointing. A bright star was rising silently above the horizon. It looked like a dazzling flare and rivaled anything else crowding the sky above Uncle Ty’s trailer. It swept eastward. Usually you would see a light and it would be some airplane heading toward the little airport in Fulton. But not this. No, it moved with a relentless energy all its own and you actually held your breath as it cut across the heavens above you. It was as silent as the star-crowded sky, and that very sky seemed to part ways in order to let it pass.
“There’s Icy,” Cammie said informatively. That is what she had always called the International Space Station. We stood rooted as the ISS, that lonely human outpost, passed above us. I wondered who was there tonight and if they were looking down at us right now.
“Right you are,” Ty said. He got busy then. He dimmed the red lights and re-checked his home-built PC. Cables ran from the boxy computer to the camera that hung like an afterthought from the eyepiece of the telescope. The camera was a heavy arrangement and had to be counter-weighted by an old peanut butter jar filled with lead shot. That was so the ‘scope wouldn’t slew over on its mount. It was a delicate balance and Ty had the arrangement perfected.
Once, when Dad caught a break from his work schedule he came over to Ty’s and looked around the observatory. “It’s all a patchwork,” Dad said, laughing. “But if you say it works, I guess it works. Sure a sight. Wouldn’t stand down at the plant, though.”
Ty just shrugged and smiled. “Perfection is the enemy of just good enough,” he said. That was sort of Ty’s motto. And he lived by it. He had had some college. Physics, Mom said. But the tuition money had run out and the city where he lived got a little too busy for him. So one day he just packed up and headed home for the North Country.
“He was always clever,” Mom had told us once. “As good as any college grad, I guess. He can sure talk like one, anyway. All those books he reads.” Then she would sigh, almost wearily. “I suppose he could be off doing all those space things he’s so fond of,” she would say. “But you know he’s just content to fiddle and play around and be who he is.”
Ty turned a knob and scanned the western horizon. He checked the PC and camera one more time. He kept a split eye-piece at what he called “the business end of the telescope.” Thus he could peek through an eye-piece and see the night sky at the same time that the camera was scanning it. That set-up had cost him more than the telescope itself, he had said. Special order through some optics manufacturer. Another month of beans on toast.
“There it is,” he whispered. He hit a switch and the telescope began to track. Another one of Uncle Ty’s modifications made special just to let the old ‘scope chase spacecraft. On the PC a little blob of light at the center of the screen grew. It resolved into a triangular shape. The space shuttle Atlantis winged through the cosmos. Cammie and I breathed a collective “ohhhh.”
It was the Last Shuttle, Ty had said. The last mission of over one hundred that had flown. For the last decade most of the missions had been dedicated to building the ISS. Now the shuttles were being retired. The proud ships would become museum pieces. Except for the two that had challenged the sky and been destroyed.
“It’s chasing Icy,” Cammie said.
Ty smiled. “Yup. Like a hound after a rabbit. That ship’s hauling the mail. The last supply run to the ISS. It’s a short visit at the space station and then back home for the crew.”
“The last one,” I said. “Ever.”
Ty shrugged. “Something will replace the shuttle. Someone somewhere is always working on the next big thing.” Mom said Uncle Ty was always talking about the Next Big Thing.
Atlantis rose in the dark sky above us, a bright jewel among distant stars. A meteor crossed heaven somewhere in its wake. A startling sight and one we goggled at. Another confirmed meteor that Cammie and I would add to our count! The Atlantis Meteor we would later call it.
“Can I run the telescope?” Cammie asked.
I rolled my eyes in the darkness. Cammie always wanted to “run the telescope” no matter what was going on. And Ty would always let her. Even if it might mess up whatever he was observing. “I’m not publishing any of this data,” he would say. And then just laugh.
Cammie stepped up to the eyepiece and her small hand adjusted the focus knob. The barely defined triangular shape on the screen became an irregular blob. Then she adjusted the knob in the other direction. Just when Atlantis went back into focus Cammie overcompensated.
Suddenly there was three of everything on the screen. But most especially three shuttles. Atlantis hung in the middle, but now one fuzzy duplicate shuttle flew just ahead of it and another followed. It looked like a flying formation of space shuttles. Like some sort of cosmic air show. I shook my head. Leave it to Cammie.
“Whups,” Cammie said, looking at the screen. “Now there are three. I’ll fix it.”
But Uncle Ty put his hand on Cammie’s shoulder and whispered, “Wait.” His voice was so soft that I could barely hear him over the whine of the tracking motor. He stared at the screen for a long time. Then his eyes went to the two photos on the observatory wall. The lost crews of Columbia and Challenger looked back at him. Overhead, Atlantis winged its way to the east, a tiny bubble of air and light and life.
On the screen the three images continued to fly in formation. A glitch in the focal alignment, surely. A product of old optics and my sister’s untrained hand.
Cammie turned to look up at Ty, her hair dropping across one eye. “I’ll fix it,” she said and her voice was as soft as the night.
“No,” Uncle Ty said quietly. “Tonight I think we’ll let Atlantis fly with her sisters.”
Note the featured artwork is called “Attitude Hold” by Kim Poor, 1986