The Astronaut

(Inspired by the painting "Apollo 11 Space Team" by Norman Rockwell)

By Raelle Clark

The inky black sky stares down on the only three men in the entire world gazing back at it. Their smooth, white space suits plastered with American flags stand out harshly against the deep black abyss. Their gaze is intense as they study the now familiar constellations dotted along the horizon. Americans, they say, are ready to go beyond what they see.

Standing below and wondering is all he has ever done; now he will see space with all it has to offer. Its never-ending darkness, randomly be-speckled with tiny points of light millions of light years away creates the illusion of a mystery not solved. Now, he will captain the first shuttle into space and see it all up close and personal. His mouth hangs slightly open as he takes it all in. His blue eyes are captured in imagining all the possibilities this venture will mean to the scientific community.

The fresh, open spring air will soon be replaced by the stuffy, recycled air of his newly prepared space shuttle. His food is to be in the form of a brown stick; the taste of which he has been accustoming himself to over the last few weeks. It reminds him of burnt toast with much the same texture, but it has no smell. As for gravity, there is no gravity in space; consequently, he will float like a feather with almost no control over his direction. He can already feel the solidity of the ship's controls in his hands as he stares up at Orion and wonders what it will be like.

He has said his goodbyes; he is ready for the unknown. Because of the presence of his little girls, his wife took the news stoically, as she always does when he tells her of the grand adventures he will have and his dreams of being in space. His two brunette daughters took the information with tears and hugs. Later that night, after the girls had brushed teeth, combed hair, and shuffled off to bed; his wife, with her long, blonde hair and tall figure wrapped in blue satin, sat him down to confront reality. He may never come back. What then?

He had kissed her cheek and hugged her tight, then shook off her worries as soon as they were spoken. Promises were made and now forgotten as he glances at his two best friends standing next to him, staring in oblivion at the stars. He can guess their feelings by the way they both keep shifting their feet around on the scarred pavement. They too have said goodbye to their wives and children. Tears were shed and hugs were exchanged on both sides, the leaving and the left. The two were obviously thinking about their families.

The vacuum of space will be an adventure beyond anything they had ever talked about or imagined. They will be pioneers in a place unexplored and untouched, just like Lewis and Clark were in the Wild West, and maybe, just like Lewis and Clark, they could go down in history. This unknown frontier they are about to face could change their lives and the lives of countless billions. It could immensely advance the knowledge of scientists and average people alike; it was exciting.

Even though they have been promised complete safety and no problems, he is a little unsure of what lies ahead. They could crash or something could malfunction. As much as he wishes to go into space, he doesn't quite know what to expect, which is one reason why he volunteered in the first place, but still.what if he doesn't come back? What will happen to his family? His large Victorian house? Everything? He can almost hear his wife's voice attached to all of these worries.

He quickly pushes these thoughts aside in favor of admiring the view from the cockpit of the space shuttle he has just entered. The halls of the spacecraft are sparkling white and cream colored and the large cupboards are stuffed with the many necessities of the voyage. The sleeping quarters are small and immaculate. Each bed is made with starched, white sheets and adorned with a single, fluffy pillow. Those are just a few of the hundreds of things he notices as he single-mindedly walks inside.

Controls and buttons of all shapes, sizes, and colors litter the cockpit and he automatically identifies them as he speeds past in anticipation. There is the green ignition switch he is almost loath to push, the fuel gauge reading full, and the temperature gauge set to seventy-three degrees. There is the air pressure gauge he hopes will never enter the red zone, the odd black radio controls, and there in front of it all, his seat. He quickly sits down in the grey cushioned chair and buckles in, almost grinning as he watches his friends follow suit. He nods to them and simultaneously, they perform their pre-flight system checks. After finding everything in working order, they report their status to the "command tower" and sit back and wait for the conformation, "all systems go."

He begins to take deep breaths and imagine what his two little girls are doing at that moment. They are probably sitting in front of the television in their favorite purple pajamas hugging tight their worn teddy bears he has given them, watching as "Apollo" takes off with their mother. He hopes they will understand his motives and that they will still have him when he returns. if he returns. He has to mentally kick himself to make the thought go away.

The countdown begins, pulling his mind out of his morbid thoughts and forcing him to focus in on the husky voice coming out of his radio as it reads out the remaining time before liftoff with excitement.