As a kid you spent most summer nights on your back lawn, staying out as late as your parents would allow, staring at the heavens through your Tasco telescope. Every Christmas and birthday wish was the same: a trip to Space Camp. Your parents didn’t have the money to send you, but they did take you to Cape Canaveral every year to see a shuttle launch and visit the Kennedy Space Center. You lived and breathed space. You could rattle off every astronaut and ground crew member for every manned space flight on both sides of the Atlantic since the space race began. All you could think of, laying there at night looking at the constellations, was someday achieving escape velocity not only from that small Alabama town, but from Earth itself.
You excelled in school and graduated as valedictorian, student council president, and a three-sport star. Getting the congressional recommendation to the Air Force Academy was the easiest thing you’d done yet, and when the acceptance letter came you were on your way to your goals.
You worked hard in Colorado Springs, harder than the other cadets, harder than you had ever worked yourself. You knew that the path to becoming an astronaut would test your limits so you resolved to test them yourself first. You were captain of everything you did, from the Mountain West Conference champion lacrosse team to the many clubs you joined, all while maintaining a perfect GPA and earning a degree in aeronautical engineering. When you graduated you were the very model of a modern Second Lieutenant, and were a lock for one of the coveted spots at the AETC.
To nobody’s surprise you showed high aptitude for piloting jets and finished flight school at the top of your class. You moved quickly through the system after that and became a test pilot faster than anyone in the history of the Air Force. Your government regularly trusted you with millions of dollars of experimental equipment and you were gaining valuable experience every day. The minute you were wheels down after your 1,000th hour in the air you sent off your application for the NASA astronaut-training program.
You were not accepted.
You weren’t accustomed to failure but you handled this setback like a professional and tried again the next year. Another rejection. Rather than let it get you down, you only strengthened your resolve and doubled your efforts to become an astronaut. When another war-like military action flared up in the Middle East you took a leave from the test pilot program to pad your resume with some combat experience. You applied again. You were not accepted.
You started broadening your experience even further, doing anything you could think of to make you more attractive to NASA. You got certified to pilot unmanned reconnaissance drones. You took another combat tour, this time in stealth vehicles. You got a graduate degree in engineering. You submitted a video of you expertly plucking plush toys in the arcade claw game along with a note that said “Picture deploying a satellite payload.” You went to bed every night praying for an alien invasion that would give you the opportunity to step up and fly one of their spacecraft, leading a completely plausible attack on the mothership.
As you neared the end of your eight-year service obligation you were fighting off depression. It was bad enough that it looked like your dreams weren’t going to come true, but out in the civilian world there were businessmen and boy band burnouts with more cosmonaut training you had. You struggled to keep the bitter thoughts at bay when a multimillionaire space tourist from Queens bought a seat to hang out on the ISS. You tried to keep your spirits up with the thought that commercial spaceflight would mean opportunities for good pilots, but the numbers didn’t lie and you knew that those ventures wouldn’t be viable until well after you were past your prime flying years. While it might have been a feel-good publicity bump to send Senator Glenn back into orbit at age 77, Richard Branson wasn’t going to employ anyone but square-jawed 35-and-under Pete Mitchell clones to take his passengers into the final frontier.
You never completely lost hope, however, and you never stopped trying to become an astronaut. Finally, with your ninth application, your tenacity paid off and you were accepted to the NASA astronaut-training program. You couldn’t contain your excitement when you showed the letter to your CO and you shipped out for Pensacola the next day.
You were sailing through the first year of training, earning top marks in every category, when word came down that the new president was slashing the space program budget to a fraction of what it was. There would only be four more shuttle missions, and each of them already had a crew. Your dream was over just as it was coming to fruition. You were crushed. It would be years, decades maybe, before NASA was able to put another manned spaceflight program in place. For the foreseeable future it would be all unmanned probes all the time. Absent the Soviet-induced paranoia of the Cold War there was no political impetus to keep sending men into orbit, let alone plant them on other celestial bodies. The space shuttle, considered the pinnacle of human achievement when you were a child, was destined for the scrapyard with no immediate successor to propel us further afield. America was dropping out of the space race with a pulled hamstring. It seemed more and more likely that if anyone were going to land on Mars, it would be the Chinese. At least the flag would match the planet.
Despite it all you stayed on at NASA and completed training. If you couldn’t get into space yourself you could at least be on the team and push from the inside to make sure that someone else would someday get the chance. Your degrees and experience were valuable to what was left of the program and you joined a project with a mission to land a robotic rover on Venus. Twelve years later you were at the joystick, piloting the probe as it pierced the sulfuric haze of the planet, touching it down lightly on the surface. You cheered along with everyone else in Mission Control, but you couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pain deep in your gut knowing that working a joystick at sea level was as close as you’d ever get to space.