"Daddy, what happened?"
"It blew up, honey."
My sister was five and she was the first speak. I was seven and knew I was going to be an astronaut. We were in Florida on vacation and the shuttle was supposed to launch while we were there. My awesome parents drove us from our condo in North Palm Beach to the Cape, not once, not twice but three days in a row as the launch continued to get scrubbed due to cold weather.
I remember the instant the shuttle blew up, watching it from the side of a nearby roadway, and I knew exactly what happened. I remember the crowd gasp. And I remember my sister pulling at my father's arm and being the first in the crowd to say anything. I remember being annoyed, as most typical seven-year old brothers tend to get, when she asked a question I knew the answer to. I remember the look on my parents' face. I remember feeling sad. But most importantly, I remember how proud I felt and how much more I wanted to be an astronaut that day.
Today, I reflected on how did being there affect my life. Most obviously it kept my passion for space alive and two years later, in July of 1988, I went to SpaceCamp. Later, as I neared the time to begin planning what I would do after high school, my parents spent countless hours researching the path to NASA including how to become an Air Force pilot and how they could get me the most prestigious recommendation they could to earn me entry into the Air Force Academy. In the end I didn't choose that path and instead chose a path into computer science, thanks mainly to the effect of Jurassic Park.
Reflecting on the "what-if" of becoming an astronaut, as a now parent of two, I'm blown away by what my parents tried to accomplish for me. What an amazing thing, to have someone on this Earth who would go to any lengths possible to get you the right foundation to make your dreams come true instead of to laugh and scoff and say "sure Brian, an astronaut". And I'm blessed to have two, and now for the past decade I've had a third person too.
The other thing I've realized is the coincidence that this year is the 25th anniversary of that day, and also the year the space shuttle program will end. As my wife and parents know, for the past few months I've made it clear that I will be taking Penelope down to Florida to see the next and penultimate space shuttle launch. If Wally was older and able to appreciate it I'd bring him too because I want my kids to experience, at least once, the wonder of watching a manned spacecraft launch to the heavens and the imagination it sparks with that tangible discovery that anything really is possible. The symmetry that mine and Penelope's first launch will be 25 years apart had escaped me until today and the thought is bittersweet because who knows when, or if, she and Wally might see another launch of a manned mission to space.