When I was three years old, I got to see the Space Shuttle Discovery launch on September 12, 1991 (coincidentally, this was my brother’s second birthday). My father was still in the USAF, so we got to watch the launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
For once, I’m really glad my mother saved all kinds of weird things from when I was little, because tucked in a box of childhood memorabilia (that I would just throw out, because I’m not into holding onto that kind of crap) was our vehicle permit from the launch. So I was able to determine the exact date of my murky memory of the event, and the shuttle launch number: STS-48.
(So, I just Googled the crap out of this launch, so I could pretend to be all knowledgeable about it… which probably would have worked better if I didn’t tell you all that I just looked it up… I’m an idiot) STS-48 had Discovery delivering the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS- seriously, every article looks 87% more intelligent when you add fancy acronyms to it), which basically had the job of studying Earth’s upper atmosphere, particularly the ozone layer.
But I was three and didn’t know the ozone layer from a European electropop band (actually, this video is better- more pelvic thrusting going on), and space shuttles were just like big airplanes that took you to the moon (which was not made of cheese… I was a child, but not a total fucking moron). Of infinitely greater importance was the fact that we were near the ocean. And, despite the fact that I spent my very early childhood in coastal states (Alaska and California), I had only been to the ocean once before and didn’t remember it.
So, I’m tottering around the viewing area, chatting up the other kids on the beach. I was an exceptionally friendly and talkative child (only the latter part stuck around into adulthood). And I was wearing this hot pink fanny pack, because everyone around me needed to know I was a tiny tourist, and my mother had to keep chasing me down and dragging me back to the family.
Damn that woman. I hate staying still.
Eventually, the launch prep got pretty heavy, and an announcer on the air force base began telling the assembled crowd what was going on. For a moment, I thought God was talking to me, but I dismissed that because God didn’t talk to anybody. Then I thought it was Mickey Mouse, who I had totally met yesterday, but then I remembered he didn’t speak. Looking back, I’m super proud of my deductive reasoning.
While the adults (my parents and grandmother and aunt) were watching the shuttle across the water (the air force base is located on a tiny peninsula on the other side of a small channel from Kennedy Space Center), I decided to sneak down to the edge of water and play for a bit.
Because they were just staring at things and that was super boring.
Down at the water’s edge, I kept picking up pretty shells and putting them in my little fanny pack. This little boy eventually joined me, and I had to race him to get to the best shells. It was like my first date, with a tiny, competitive Casanova. Only I ended up pushing him to the ground, grabbing the biggest shell we’d seen, and running away while he started to cry (because I didn’t want his mom to talk to my mom and get me in trouble even though he was being a total pain in the ass and it’s okay for me to hit him because he’s a boy and it’s only bad to hit girls).
So, I run up to my mom, this big shell clutched in my hand, looking back over my shoulder to keep an eye out for pursuit, when all of a sudden there’s this really loud rumbling sound and all the adults start making gaspy, cheering noises. My mom (who didn’t realize I had run off), reaches down and points my gaze in the right direction to watch the launch. There was a lot of fire (that was awesome) and a lot of smoke and stuff, and then the shuttle very slowly rose into the air. And it kept going and going until I couldn’t see it anymore, even though I could still see its smoke trail in the morning sky.
My mom reached down to grab my hand when I suddenly shouted, “Look what I found!” and thrust the shell toward her. She nodded indulgently, and said, “Oh, that’s a pretty- OH MY GOD, SAMI, WHAT IS THAT?” And when I looked at it, I could see some twitchy, segmented legs coming out of my beautiful shell.
So, I screamed. And I dropped it in the dirt and started crying about the giant spider and asking Daddy to kill it. And my dad deposited my little brother in my mom’s arms and bent down and picked up the shell.
“Aw, Sami, it’s just a crab. He’s living in the shell.”
But I was sobbing irrationally and snot was running down my face and there was no goddamn way I was ever going to touch that shell again. My dad tried to hand it to me, but I shrieked and jumped away. Eventually, he calmed me down enough to come over, unzip my little fanny pack, and put the crab in there.
Which made me cry even harder because now it was in my bag and near me, and I could totally feel it moving and it was going to hack through the cheap nylon with its giant monster claws and then bite my leg on the way home and then crawl up into my hair and get stuck like the gum I’d gotten stuck in there a few months ago and mom would have to get peanut butter to get it out and I would be sticky and smell like a sandwich and probably have crab babies growing in my ponytail.
So, my dad took the fanny pack off of my quivering, snot-drippy body and held it up with him on the ride home (well, back to my grandmother’s abode). And I spent the entire trip with my gummy, salt-encrusted eyes firmly fixed on that pink bag.
Just in case.
Upon return to the Hederman château (or condo, as it were), my dad starting boiling a pot of water. He explained to me that he was going to boil the crab out and then I could have my shell. I was a little unnerved by the idea of boiling the spiny spider creature out of my pretty shell because I was afraid the thing was going to scale the walls of the pot and chase me around. Dad promised to put a lid on the pot, but I still watched it the whole time, because who knows whether that was a radioactive crab-spider that was freakishly strong and could raise the lid of the pot to escape the watery grave we’d constructed for him, like a Hulked-out Houdini.
Apparently, watched pots do boil, because we managed to get the little hermit crab out of the shell. And then my dad presented me with my shiny prize- the shell that had caused all the trouble in the first place. I accepted it warily.
And for five years, that thing sat in my room (well, rooms, seeing as we moved twice). I never fully trusted it and always worried the crab was still lurking in there, waiting to attack me. Eventually, I got rid of it. And slept easier as a result.
The whole reason I bring up this incident is that I was reminded of it while watching the Atlantis launch online today. It was Atlantis‘s final flight and the third-to-last space shuttle launch for NASA. I was a little sad watching Atlantis head off on its journey toward the ISS, but then I thought about my first (and only) live space shuttle launch and laughed a bit.
Here’s to you, space shuttle program. You had a damn fine run, and hopefully the new exploration plans can match and exceed your incredible accomplishments.