This was made abundantly clear during a recent family trip to Florida, when one day, between our time at Animal Kingdom and Epcot and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, I dragged the family over to Cape Canaveral. There, we boarded a bus to view launch pads 39-A and 39-B, rode something called the “Space Shuttle Launch Simulator,” and gazed upon the silhouettes of the Mercury-Atlas and the Gemini-Titan and many others relics in NASA’s somber and beautiful “rocket garden.”
“The Atlas was the rocket used for the last four Mercury missions,” I excitedly told my sons, “replacing the less powerful Redstone used by Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom in the suborbital missions of Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7. But it was John Glenn who first rode the Mercury Atlas in Friendship 7, and it was the power of the Atlas that enabled Glenn to attain Earth orbit.”
My son Sean checked his watch. “Don’t be like that,” I suggested.
“Why shouldn’t we be bored?” my sons asked, reasonably enough. “There’s nothing to do here!”
“Because,” I said. “Space is important!”
“Maybe to you,” said Zach.
The day before, we’d been to the new Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios, a park whose corporate symbol is a giant spinning planet Earth. The family had awakened in our vacation condo at dawn, then screamed down the highway in order to be in the park at “rope-drop,” the moment when Universal officially opened and the crowd of many hundreds began stampeding toward the Wizarding World. We’d wound up waiting in a 30-minute queue at Hogwarts anyhow, before at last being loaded onto our “broomsticks” and rocketing around the Quidditch field and having dragons breathe faux-smoke in our faces.
In the Sixties, Hogwarts was called The Moon, He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was known as Nikita Kruschev, and The Boy Who Lived was Colonel John Glenn. It’s hard now to imagine the obsession we had then with the progress toward outer space, but I can assure you that each launch from Cape Kennedy was anticipated by my friends and me with the same breathless wonder that my boys later reserved for the release of each successive volume of J.K. Rowling’s brilliant heptalogy.
I cannot tell you the seven horcruxes without consulting Wikipedia (okay, fine: the diary, the ring, the locket, the goblet, the diadem, Nagini the snake, and whoa: Harry himself). But I can instantly tell you the name of the vehicle the Gemini capsules docked with in 1966 (the AGENA); the only manned Saturn mission to use the Saturn 1-B rocket rather than the Saturn 5 (Apollo 7); and the names of the three Apollo 1 astronauts killed in the terrible flash fire of February 21, 1967–Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee.
I am grateful I grew up at a time when the country had such a strange and outsized dream. For those of us who observed it all as children, the space race was an important counterpoint to the decade’s hope-shattering violence. (There is a powerful moment in Lorrie Moore’s novel, Who Will Save the Frog Hospital? when one character of my generation turns to another and says, by way of explaining our youth, “We ice-skated to ‘Eve of Destruction.’ ‘The western world, it is exploding,’ and we’d do these little spins and turns.” )
It took longer to get in to the Space Shuttle Simulator ride at Kennedy. than it did to board the Mission: Space ride at Epcot. The line snaked around the building, and our progress was slow. To pass the time, my sons relived the awesomeness of the Wizarding World. They’d bought wands at Ollivanders. They’d drunk butterbeer. My older boy, a high school senior, had purchased a set of robes that bore the crest of his preferred house: Hufflepuff. (“I’m hard working and loyal!”) We’d determined which member of the family belonged to which house. I was deemed a Slytherin.
At last we were strapped in to the simulator. We listened to the countdown, which, embarrassingly, gave me chills. There was an ear-blasting roar, and the faux spacecraft shook so hard I feared my glasses would fly off. Then a voice from Mission Control said, “We have a serious problem! Guidance systems are malfunctioning! You’re going to have to fly manu–”
At this moment, all the lights came on and the doors of the ride opened. Our astronaut corps was confused. At the moment the shuttle was simulating a malfunction, the ride actually malfunctioned. A man with a huge beard came into the room and apologized. “Sorry, man,” he said. “This happens sometimes.” The representative of the Slytherin house, predictably, made a few sarcastic remarks about how running the simulator “wasn’t exactly rocket science.”
The dude unplugged something, and plugged it back in, and then closed the doors and launched us again. The second time, when we went through the simulated malfunction, everything went just fine. A few minutes later we stepped out of the simulator and into the Florida twilight, where the sun was now disappearing behind the rocket garden.
I remembered reading my sons the first Harry Potter book a dozen years earlier, and my younger boy’s love of the description of the Quidditch matches. “I wish I were Harry Potter,” Sean had said, back when he was four. “I want to fly through the air.”
I had tried to explain to him that when I was his age, Americans had done just that.
Standing there on the Florida coast, I saw the moon, shining down upon the earthbound rockets. It looked very far away.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is the author of 12 books including She’s Not There, a memoir (Broadway/Random House). She is Professor of English at Colby College in Maine