For most people, Feb. 1, 2003, passed like any other day. Sure, a pretty big disaster dominated the headlines: The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere, raining down bits of metal and debris on the lawns of some Texans. But at the end of the news cycle, most people ate dinner and drifted off to sleep.
For me, however, it was different. It was the first time I realized my father might very well die in prime time.
Growing up the son of an astronaut sounds glamorous, and in many ways it is. Between my brother slyly kicking Bill Clinton’s foot to make sure he got to touch him (before getting a handshake anyway), dribbling caviar out of my mouth in front of the governor-general in Paris (you’d think something so expensive would taste better), or drinking nightly with Lance Bass in Russia as he prepared for his ill-fated attempt to go to space, my older brother, younger sister and I have had undue access to some of the most interesting locations, minds and situations on Earth.
I didn’t quite understand how lucky we were to have that access, but I always expected it to be there. The glamour was just a part of my life. Answering the same questions from everyone I met (Do you want to be an astronaut when you grow up? Aren’t you proud of your dad? Has he ever seen a UFO?), bumping into Neil Armstrong at the dentist, mocking my father for being a 40-year-old who had to do homework every night – that was just life.
Columbia changed all that. On that February morning, watching the disaster over and over on TV, I could feel my childish innocence disintegrate alongside the shuttle. On the screen, faces flashed one by one, the same “sit in front of the flag and smile” NASA preflight shots I’d seen of my Dad. I recognized most of the faces and names. They were people to whom I’d been introduced in the hallway at NASA. I remember having to remind myself to breathe. It felt as though someone had reached inside and turned me off, yet somehow they were also revving the engine. Something inside me started screaming that day, and I’ve never quite figured out how to stop it.
The news networks milked the disaster as long as they could, then moved on. But then there was a governmental investigation, so every once in a while over the coming months, footage of the disaster would be wheeled out for another round. In Houston, it took a long time for things to get back to normal. Funerals were held and astronauts waited to see when and how they would go to space again. For the Canadians especially, who are few in number and must clear extra hurdles to get assigned to American missions, the future was uncertain. But as time went on, the shuttles began to fly again. With each uneventful launch, reporters became less interested in whether there would be another catastrophe, until they settled into their old routine: virtually no coverage at all. Disappointed, they packed up their cameras and left.
My father’s previous spaceflight (STS-100) had occurred less than two years before Columbia, which meant that, regardless of scheduling changes related to the disaster, he wouldn’t be flying again any time soon. So I, too, moved on, putting aside my concerns about the safety of space flight and getting down to the nitty-gritty details of growing up. I graduated high school. I wandered the Earth for a while. I entered university and began preparing for my own future. It would be a lie to say that I wasn’t changed by Columbia, but for years I couldn’t articulate how. There was no lightning rod for my emotions to grab on to. As I travelled the world and slowly began to lose touch with the people who had made NASA feel like home, so too did the emotional attachments fray.
Then, in early 2008, Dad got a new assignment. He was slated to become the first Canadian commander in the history of space flight. Close to retirement age, having given the people of Canada a lifetime of service, he was getting the best gold watch they could ever give. He was being handed the keys to the most impressive machine ever built, the International Space Station, and it scared the hell out of me.
He’d be launching in a Soyuz, a Russian rocket I knew little about, from Kazakhstan, a country I’d never been to, with a crew I’d never met. Then in August, 2011, Soyuz payload rockets began exploding at a rate far beyond my comfort zone. While I was assured that they weren’t the same as the vehicle Dad would use, that was little consolation. Every day seemed to bring a new complication, with flight delays, failed rockets and equipment trouble at the station. Every day, the fear bubbled up a little further.
I’d learned what failure means in my father’s line of work. Not just for the astronaut, but for the astronaut’s family.
If he doesn’t make it back to Earth, someone will shove a camera in my mother’s face and ask her to comment on her husband’s death. He will be called a hero, mythologized. Once that gets old, the media will slowly humanize him, picking apart any faults they can dig up. Someone will make a documentary. The Internet will be awash with macabre jokes. Everyone I meet from then on will have watched my father die.
I have friends who’ve lost their parents. I’ve watched the trickle of sympathetic words appear on Facebook walls, seen how families deal with the trauma and how, albeit slowly, routine reasserts itself. Someone essential to their lives has died, but the Band-Aid has been ripped off, so to speak, and the family is allowed to mourn and then heal. Everyone knows not to bring up the loss except to offer help, and over time those offers, too, will stop. These deaths are, to put it bluntly, normal.
If my father dies doing his job, his death won’t be. I won’t just have to watch him explode before my eyes, I’ll have to see him explode on TV over and over and over again. Pundits will declare that he died for nothing, that NASA is a waste of money. His official 4x4 will make the covers of magazines, along with headlines like “The death of a hero” and “The end of NASA?” My family will have fresh reminders for decades to come, as people find reasons to turn his death into a topic of conversation. We will never be allowed to let go.
So my fear isn’t really that my dad is going to die. Everyone’s dad dies. My fear is that he won’t die once but a thousand times, with a million people talking about him as though he were a concept instead of a man.
This is probably what I should have feared all along. But As a child I never had a reason to view his work from any perspective but his, and in turn never understood how dangerous and special his job is. After all, how many kids really know or care that much about what their parents do for a living? To me he was just Dad. In the mornings he started the car and drove away, and in the evenings he came home. There were times when he was gone for six months, training in Russia, and there were public-relations tours across Canada. But there was no reason to be worried for him. I never really thought about what it must have taken to get where he was, and how much fear he’d had to set aside to achieve his dreams. I never truly realized that the job means more to him than life itself. He always used to say that walls are just things that stop other people from getting where you want to go. I’m finally starting to understand he actually meant it.
On Wednesday, if all goes well, my father is going to cram himself into a tiny capsule atop a giant Russian missile and attempt to blast 400 kilometres into the sky.
Yes, I’m terrified. But I couldn’t be more proud.