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Space travel uphill in the snow both ways

Last week, my New York relatives looked out their windows to see the space shuttle Enterprise take a farewell flight past the Manhattan skyline. It was headed for its new home (or final resting place) at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. They all declared it awesome, and I looked out my window in Greater Boston at some commuter cyclists and a dazed possum and was jealous.

C loves playing astronaut – I often find him loafing about dressed in a NASA shuttle commander’s uniform, mumbling something about rocket boosters. He also has a whole collection of space shuttles and rocket ship models he likes to zoom around the house. But it struck me –  every toy, every notion C has of the space program is now a thing of the past. Space was the promise of the future when I was young, now, it’s become nostalgia.

While C watched the farewell flight of the space shuttle on the evening news, I realized I was only a little older than he is when the first shuttle was launched in 1981. The whole enormous effort is gone and done in less than a lifetime. In that short time, it demonstrated to all of us, especially children, both elation and despair. In 1986, the Challenger disaster became a set-piece of memory – I can still smell the bleach they used to wipe cafeteria tables as I think back to when my friend came to tell us about it as lunch was ending. And I can remember the sick feeling I had as I looked in the newspaper at the plumes of smoke in the sky, and the faces of the astronauts that died. I still remember their names. Then there’s the poem I wrote to commemorate the event: “The very first teacher to go up in space/Many teachers wished they were in Christa’s place….” Thank you. It’s a gift.

Now, how does C connect to space, and its possibilities for greatness? Besides the fact that if you pass Level 20 of Angry Birds: Space (Yes! He did it, dear readers!), it provides you with a link to the NASA website if you want to learn more about space travel, beyond just how to kill a green pig with a purple bird at 3 g’s.

I know space is still a source of awe and fascination for him. There is a brand-new planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston, and he, though offered admission on a weekly basis, refuses to go in and see the show. I think he thinks he’s really going to blast off, and he feels he hasn’t taken the proper astronomy classes to prepare. And there aren’t even as many planets to worry about as there used to be.

One of my favorite things to do with C, when we visit the ancestral home down in Long Island, is go to the Cradle of Aviation Museum. The museum is located in a row of former airplane hangars at Mitchel Field, in Garden City. Mitchel Field was a military training center going back to the American Revolution, and is adjacent to Roosevelt Field, an airfield used by Amelia Earhart, as well as Charles Lindbergh for his solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Roosevelt Field is now a mall.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, ...

The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also in the row of hangars is the Nassau County Firefighters Museum (love it), the Long Island Children’s Museum (which we haven’t even made it to yet because we love the fire trucks and the airplanes so much), and the fulcrum of my childhood nostalgia, the old Nunley’s Amusement Park carousel, bedecked with images of old-timey, sea-breezy Long Island, and removed from its former site in Baldwin which is now a Pep Boys.

We go to the museum mainly to sit in the cockpits of old war planes and helicopters and play with the controls, which look more like typewriters than instruments to help you guide a flying machine across enemy lines. While C battles his imaginary Red Baron, I look at the exhibits, with yet more nostalgia: Long Island, home to the Grumman Corporation that built the F-14 Tomcat (featured so prominently in Top Gun) has an incredible history in aviation that, like the space shuttle, is gone. In addition to the F-14, Grumman built several World-War II Navy fighters, the common mail truck, and the Apollo Lunar Module.  You can see one, up close, at the museum, and many of the volunteer guides that work there were former engineers for Grumman. You ask them where the bathroom is and then they’re like, “It’s over there. Oh, by the way, I built that.” When my boys are a bit older, we are going to sit up and listen as these guides recall this Long Island, and this future, that has, for now, like the space shuttle on its way to the Intrepid, passed us by. Because Grumman is now called Northrup -Grumman, and is located in Virginia. In a mall. Next to a Pep Boys.

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