In 1984, my family took a giant leap, moving from Wolverhampton to the small town of Stuart, Florida. With me (aged 9) and my two younger brothers (aged 5 and 2) in tow (dressed in matching maroon & grey velour track suits!!!) and flew away to start a new life.
The place we settled, and where my family still live, is a two hour drive down from Cape Canaveral and the Space Coast. Without realising my extreme fortune, I soon became accustomed to watching shuttle launches from the garden,the park, or the beach – and occasionally we even got to see a night launch! My love of all things space began within months of starting middle school & going on a field trip to the Kennedy Space Centre. By the time SpaceCamp came out in 1986, there was no going back for me…
On January 28th, 1986 I was off ‘ill’ from school, conveniently on shuttle launch day, and at around 11am I went outside to sit on the front doorstep to watch the launch. Within a minute or so of the launch time, I knew something was wrong – it didn’t look right in the sky- I had never seen that strange cloud and trails happen on a launch before. I ran inside to phone my Dad’s work, hot tears streaming down my face, INSISTING something was wrong. I have a distinct memory that it was what seemed like hours before the tv broadcasters admitted that, rather than a minor malfunction, I’d actually just watched Challenger explode above my head.
I don’t know what it is about astronomy and space travel that captivated me then, and continues to do so; I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on it. But within a year of the Challenger disaster, I had saved up for and bought my first telescope – a white Tasco Reflector which cost $175 (My brother Adrian subsequently broke it by trying to look at ornaments on the other side of the living room! I’m still struggling to forgive him!)
No one ever TAUGHT me about astronomy. I must have learned by myself, not that I remember studying or even reading about it. But I can tell you that I knew the constellation Orion, and could pick out Mars in the night sky before I turned 13. They have been familiar companions my whole life.
Last Friday night, I was standing on Barr Beacon with around 50 other people, in hope of seeing some of the Lyrids meteors at their peak. My husband patiently and continually adjusts the telescope to keep track of Saturn, and explains that the planets move through field of view of a telescope faster than you expect because the Earth is spinning so fast. Everyone takes turns to look into the eyepiece. And each, in turn, has their breath taken away.
I take my turn – I feel like David Bowman: “My God, its full of stars…”
Many people seemed to have a ‘moment’ – when they looked through the eyepiece and suddenly the presence of another world exists within their inner landscape – the reality of it all can feel like a blow to the chest – this is not Star Trek – that thing you’re looking at is another world, its rings of ice glowing in your field of vision, two moons orbiting to the left, the glorious cassini division adding depth perception to the image, and the whole thing gently slipping out of your field of view because we are spinning so quickly away from it…
And I think that is this that ultimately keeps me coming back to astronomy – that our lives can seem so small, our problems so important, and our vision so blinkered, that a glowing, spinning reminder of just how much bigger and expansive our existence really is can literally make you catch your breath. Occasionally we need something in our lives – a touchstone to come back to that puts everything into perspective.