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Gold Star For Robot Boy

I was floating in a boat, somewhere off the coast of Canaveral, waiting in the pre-dawn hours for the bright streak of light that would mean NASA finally stopped pausing the countdown. It had been years since the last launch went up and came down too abruptly. There had been years of recriminations, accusations and investigations. No one ever really figured out what went wrong. It was just an expensive skyrocket gone astray, lighting up the early spring cloud cover like a Roman candle on New Year's Day. I secretly hoped that my brother managed to eject somehow, landing on an unmapped island where he spent his days drinking coconut milk and swinging in a hammock but I never really believed it. He was a good swimmer, and if he was alive he would have clambered over the side of the boat by now, dripping wet and asking where the cooler was, because he really needed a beer.

The radio crackled, static blurring the countdown. The cool salt wind blew over the edges of the boat, ruffling my hair as I reclined on the seat, staring up into the grey. Some faceless technician recited the final checklist. Captain Gianetti, the mission leader, cracked a few nervous jokes. I didn't envy him. My brother wasn't an easy act to follow. Even when we were little he'd always manage to do things that made everyone else look small. He never really meant to, it just turned out that way. He always did things bigger and better. He hit longer home runs, built more complex models, ran faster, dove deeper. When he was 14 and I was 6, we lived in Plano, where our dad worked as a mechanic. There was a swimming hole a few miles from our house, and one day in August he made a swing out of a rope and a tree that hung over the water. You were supposed to grab the rope, back up the hill, and then run and swing out over the water. Then you were supposed to let go.

He looked like a crane as he let go of the rope. He just floated, hanging in the air like he was never supposed to come down, like he was just going to rise until he disappeared into the sun. When he finally started to fall into the water, gravity seemed less like a law of physics and more like a petty and vindictive bureaucrat who would never understand the freedom in rising above the daily drudgery of the 9 to 5 world. Then my brother hit the water. When he surfaced, whooping and hollering for me to try it, I knew I'd never be able to do it as well as he did. As it turned out, I couldn't even let go of the rope. I was too scared. I just swung out over the water and back onto land, somewhat ashamed. He didn't mention it. He pretended that he was wiping water out of his face, but I knew that he knew what happened. We spent the rest of the day diving for rocks and splashing each other.

I looked at my watch. The launch was scheduled for 6:25 AM, and it was already 6:41. The boat had drifted close enough to the shore that if I used my binoculars, I could see activity on the pad, gusts of steam, white-suited NASA employees engaged in last-minute preparations. I popped the top on another beer, drinking half of it in one long swallow. Gianetti was on the radio, laughing about the previous night's Green Bay game. "And then," he chuckled, "Thompson slipped in the mud, fumbled the ball, pulled it back together, started to run and got hit from three directions. I tell ya, it was a beautiful tackle."

Nobody said anything about keeping the channel clear. I'd seen the game. It was a nice tackle. This morning newscast said Thompson's knee was injured and required surgery. He'd be out for at least the rest of the season, but the sportscaster wished him a full recovery. Gianetti didn't mention that part. Maybe he didn't know.

It didn't matter. Gianetti was famous in his own right now, and when he was on the news, it was normally at the beginning. He was almost a national hero. Bright, young, photogenic, a child born of economic adversity who worked his way through school to become an astronaut. He was happily married with two beautiful children. He was a PR firm's dream. I drank some more beer as I listened to Gianetti and the technician chat about various plays and other games. It was 7:08 and the sky was clearing. I wondered what his wife and kids were doing. They were probably in the stands or in a viewing room, watching it on a monitor. He was talking about the Raiders when the technician told him to hang on. There was a slight rustling as he covered the microphone with his hand. "Okay," the techie said. "We've got a green light to go in 5. Weather Service says it should be clear sailing, but fasten those seat belts anyway."

"You heard the man," Gianetti said. "It's time to earn our salaries." I could hear clicking in the background as he listed instruments and the crew checked them off one last time, one by one. The countdown clock echoed across the water, flatly stating numbers without excitement, anticipation; without the slightest hint of nervousness in its cold, mechanical voice. I drained the rest of the can, throwing it in the stern where most of a 12-pack rolled in tandem with the waves.

I couldn't really remember why I was out there in a boat at 7:13 AM, less than one minute before they were supposed to launch a ship named the Phoenix, which was in my estimation more than appropriately christened. In a way, it represented the aspirations of every landbound person who wished they could touch the sky just once and wanted that so desperately that if anyone at all managed that feat, in some vicarious way everyone did and the nation could celebrate its success. I figured most people were gathered around television sets, waiting to see what would happen. I needed to be out on the water listening to a computer count backwards; to the waves gently beating the sides of the boat; the rustle of the crowd in the stands; the buzzers, the bells, and attendant sounds from the gantry, jutting out of the launch pad like some obscene monument to excess. As the computer neared the thirty second mark, the radio crackled again. "Captain?" the technician said.

"Yeah?" Gianetti said, somewhat more subdued than before.

"Umm ... I don't quite know how else to say this, but good luck sir."

"Thanks," Gianetti said quietly.

The computer kept counting. The engines ignited, firing once, twice and then a steady flame. There were less than 10 seconds left when Gianetti began reciting the Lord's Prayer, something most people will never know. The clock hit zero and the Phoenix slowly started off the pad, the gantry slowly falling away. There were a few moments in which the only sound was the enormous rockets propelling the Phoenix into the sky, redeeming us all and then the cheers began, rolling across the water like thunder, louder than the rockets, louder than the people themselves. I watched it burn across the sky upside down, hanging there, like nothing bad would ever happen again.

I wish my brother had been out there on the water with me that day, sitting in the boat, waiting. I think he would have been pleased at how gorgeous it looked, shooting across the sky for no good reason, other than the sheer joy of flight. I don't think he would have minded what happened so much if he could have been sitting there in the boat, laughing over a few tall boys and looking at a sky on fire. And I think that he would have reacted like I did when everyone's dreams came crashing down one last time.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008