A dream, unfulfilled

Published 7:34 pm Saturday, May 9, 2009

The dream was so close to becoming reality that I could almost taste it.

I realize now that what I was really tasting were the gnats and mosquitoes that were swarming around me, crawling up my nose and into my ears, as I sat in the weeds next to a marsh, waiting for a rocket launch that would not happen.

It was almost 11 p.m. Friday, and my wife and I had left work and headed straight for Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore, where NASA was set to make its third attempt this week at launching a Minotaur I rocket that would put several satellites into orbit.

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The launch would, perhaps, not be as spectacular as the liftoff of a shuttle — and it would be a far cry from the glorious Apollo blastoffs that sent men to the moon and launched the imaginations of people around the globe, including one precocious four-year-old in Portsmouth.

Since the days of Apollo, I’d always hoped to see a rocket launch in person — for much of my childhood, in fact, I’d hoped to be sitting atop one of those rockets when the engines were lit — but this week was the first time things seemed to line up to give me that opportunity.

When poor weather stymied a launch attempt on Tuesday, NASA officials announced they’d try again on Thursday evening, and I quickly developed a plan.

My wife drove and I sat in the passenger seat of my convertible with my laptop on and my wireless Internet card plugged in, writing an editorial, editing a few bits of copy and bouncing back and forth between the Wallops Island Web site and NOAA’s weather radar page. The closer we got to Chincoteague, the more iffy the weather became. Clouds were piling up, and the probability of a Thursday night launch was falling.

As it turned out, there was no launch Thursday, but we spent a while at the Visitors’ Center talking to a smart 7-year-old boy whose excitement about the launch and all things related to science reminded me of my own enthusiasm for the space as a boy. As some kids are obsessed with dinosaurs, I had been hooked on the space program.

Slapping at the bugs that tormented me while I set up my cameras on Friday, I reflected on the years that had passed since I had been that obsessed little boy. Four decades later, I would finally see a rocket hurled into space atop a column of fire, I thought.

We had barely made it to the Visitors’ Center for the scheduled launch time, and then we waited for almost three hours as engineers struggled with a technical issue that had stopped the countdown with just 45 minutes to go.

When that issue was finally cleared up, there was just enough time to complete the countdown and lift off before the launch window closed at 11 p.m. Launch time was set for 10:45 p.m., and as the minutes ticked by my level of anticipation grew. The only thing that constrained my smile was my desire to keep the bugs out of my mouth.

But then, 10:45 came and went with no column of fire, no swiftly rising pencil-shaped craft struggling to break the bonds of gravity, no rumble of engines rolling across the miles of marsh between myself and the launch pad.

Someone nearby had a radio and reported that a brief hold with two minutes left in the countdown had — for reasons I still haven’t learned — turned into another scrubbed launch.

Two minutes. So close to the dream that I’d already almost claimed it in my mind. And yet it remains a dream unfulfilled.

That’s OK. We know the way to Wallops Island, now. We know how to get there with minimal interference with my work. And we know how to keep track of NASA launch schedules. I’ll see that launch one day soon.