At first when I wake up, it feels like any ordinary Saturday morning. I reach over to hit the tempting orange snooze button on my phone before I catch myself. This morning I can’t afford to allow myself ten more blissful minutes of sleep. Today, there is somewhere I need to be and I can’t be even seconds late.
The moment I remember my plans for today, the relentless nerves return. There is a queasy feeling in my stomach as I force myself to eat breakfast. I don’t have much of an appetite, but I’ll need all the energy I can get.
At 15 minutes till 5, I step outside into the icy cold Florida morning. I can barely see three feet in front of me through the inky black air, so I immediately retreat inside to grab a jacket and my forgotten car keys. Once the headlights of my electric car are illuminated, my driveway feels a little less foreboding.
The drive to work feels like it takes hours, when in reality it couldn’t have lasted more than thirty minutes. My hands shake against the steering wheel, creating a fast staccato rhythm that matches my heartbeat. I attempt to take a few deep breaths, but it’s challenging. I have been working towards this experience my entire life.
All the late nights spent at work, all the times I ended up driving home when it was pitch dark, all the dreaded early mornings were leading up to this. Today is the day I will finally orbit Earth.
As the crew is getting suited up, the others chat bubbly among themselves and laugh at dull jokes. They say it helps their nerves, but I’m the opposite. I prefer to stay silent. All they get from me in response to their chatter is a stiff nod or forced smile.
I enjoy the company of the staff much more. They are quiet and respectful, yet extremely competent at their job. They don’t speak as they piece my suit together around my body, and drag the massive zipper up my back. That particular part of my outfit makes me feel like I am in a body bag. Hopefully, this mission won’t be what leads me to my grave.
After every part of every suit has been triple checked, the crew marches down the long halls to the front door. Our boots echo against the shiny tile floor, startlingly loud for such an early hour.
When the double doors are pushed open we are greeted by thundering applause and the blinding flash of cameras. In the time it took us to go over every scenario one last time and suit up, the sun has peeked over the horizon turning the sky a pale blue. An immense crowd has gathered around the space center, but they are only a fraction of the people watching. Those that weren’t lucky enough to get a front row seat are in bleachers three miles away from the launch site. Among those watching us blast off are my wife and two precious twin boys.
We smile and wave at the cameras, something we have practiced. Each of us has been carefully instructed to wave low to make sure no one’s face gets blocked. Every step of the mission is something the crew has already practiced a thousand times before.
As we complete the multi-mile ride to the Kennedy Space Center, the crew waits excitedly for the first sighting of the spaceship. When the very top of the Artemis 13 is visible over the treetops, they cheer and high-five each other. My sons would do the same thing on family trips. They would gaze out the window until they caught sight of the mountains, a palm tree, or a Ferris Wheel in the distance. Any sign that the adventure would soon begin was a cause for celebration.
When we reach the launch site at last, the ship is bigger than any of us could have imagined. It looks like a gigantic stone pillar, lit ominously. It is our ride out of this world.
My childhood dreams and 20 years of persistent training got me my ticket.
We approach the crackling, popping tower cautiously and step inside. It is a 20 story elevator ride to the top. One that drops my stomach and makes me cling to the rail for support. It turns out the sickly feeling is worth it.
From the top of the ship, the view is astounding. I can see a wide expanse of blue that is the Atlantic Oceans, and below me the flat Florida floodplains. In the other direction I spot huge crowds gathering to watch this monumental moment.
From here the people look like an overwhelming swarm of ants. I shiver and back away from the window for good measure.
We crawl through a hatch that serves as a door, and take our seats, commander first. I’m not sure whether or not to be glad the countdown clock is easily visible from where I sit.
As I watch someone come around checking people’s harnesses, my nerves spike again. I’m reminded of the many times I boarded nauseating roller coasters in Orlando with my children. Ironically, despite being an astronaut I have always been afraid of heights. Other astronauts have told me that when you are going on a space walk thousands of miles above the planet there is no ground to look down on. It is a different sensation entirely.
However, I still haven’t gotten used to the extreme acceleration of being in a rocket during the simulations, so I practiced the best way I could. By the end of the summer, I had been on every ride at Disney World and my fear had subsided slightly.
When my harnessed is finally tightened around me, I am handed a note from my wife:
You deserve this. See you soon.
Clare, Sam, & Pete
Below the note Pete has drawn our family in thick crayon. We are all holding hands, our bond the only thing keeping us from drifting off into a void of nothingness. We each wear big white space suits, and we float among the stars
One day he hopes to follow in my footsteps.
When people ask me what my job is, and I reply saying I am training to be an astronaut, their first reaction is to be impressed. Their second is to assume I am a daring risk-taker, looking for anything to give me the thrill of adrenaline in my veins. They couldn’t be more wrong. I’m a perfectionist, always wanting to be in control of my life. Wanting to know what happens next.
The astronauts I have met are intelligent, hard-working, and prepared for anything.
There is still time before the launch. I wish we could go now, so there isn’t more time for the fear to accumulate. But I sit silently and watch the clock tick down.
The waiting is almost unbearable.
With limited time until launch, systems are beginning to be activated. Since they don’t have an enormous amount of fuel, we can’t waste time with them on. If we don’t launch today, I’m sure it will be a while before the spaceship is ready to go again. Not one alarm goes off within the ship and the Command Center reports no errors.
This is becoming real.
Now it is time for each astronaut to give a goodbye speech. They are each no longer than 20 seconds, but they grab the people’s attention. Keeping them on the edge of their seats and holding their breath. Families are praying that their loved ones don’t go up in flames, that the crew will be able to return with stories of the limitless unknown.
We are all terrified yet exhilarated.
I do my best to clear my brain. I let go of my thoughts of the past and the future, focusing only on the present. On the very moment that I am in.
The connection between the ship and Earth is wearing thin. With every second that passes, the gigantic contraption becomes even more in control of itself.
There is no turning back.
With only a sliver of time left until we leave the face of this planet, three of the five engines ignite. A deafening beast-like roar explodes through the air. The walls pulse with energy, a power coming from deep inside the ship. A different kind of energy radiates off the crew, one made of anticipation.
The rocket needs all five engines lit to be propelled through the air, so for now we stay grounded. We are testing everything possible until there is no time left.
While each second was barely notable only an hour ago, they now carry the weight of the world, the stars, and our lives.
Every moment counts.
Clock hits 0
The last two engines ignite, combining their power with the three that are already on fire. Together, they have the ability to launch us into space.
An unbelievable force pushes me farther back into my seat and I can feel us lifting off the ground. I am shaken and pummeled back and forth like a leaf in the middle of a hurricane. I am now helplessly at the mercy of the ship.
I have left Earth behind.
2 minutes after launch
Our speed climbs to astronomical numbers. Fifteen times the speed of sound, sixteen times the speed of sound. We are past the point of quickly calculating places we could land if things went downhill. As we circle Earth, miles on the surface pass in the blink of an eye.
The air thins as we climb higher and higher in the atmosphere. The force paralyzing me hasn’t left. We are still struggling to breath against the force of our acceleration.
Then suddenly the continual sound stops. I let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding. All gravity has disappeared. My body feels as light as a feather.
Those eight minutes and forty seconds were the most important moments of my life. Now there is nothing between me and the rest of the universe.
I am effortlessly weightless. I am orbiting the world.
And the journey has only just begun.