I’ve always been fascinated by space travel. In fact, the first story I remember writing involved a routine rocket launch from Earth with a successful return. That was a little before Alan Shepard became the first American to enter space in 1961. So the other night, it was with excitement and a bit of wistfulness that I watched the International Space Station (ISS) pass overhead.
The ISS has been in orbit 249 miles above us since 1998, although permanent human habitation began in 2000. It travels at a speed of about 5 miles per second and completes one orbit every 90 minutes. After the sun and moon, the ISS is the brightest light in our sky. The ISS currently has six crew members—two Americans, three Russians, and one astronaut from Japan. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are currently four months into a year-long mission onboard the station. They are collecting biometric data about themselves to help scientists better understand how the human body reacts to extended time in space.
My mother worked at NASA in its heyday, during the time of the Gemini and Apollo programs, when the space program was in the news daily. Some of my schoolmates were the children of astronauts. I remember the day in sixth grade when they came to our classroom to get Mark Grissom. Mark’s father, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, was one of three astronauts who perished that day in a launch-pad fire during a test for the Apollo 1 mission.
Space is an incredibly dangerous place. Besides those who have died in training, 18 cosmonauts and astronauts have died in accidents above Earth —14 of them Americans. In two recent incidents, this past June and November, private spacecraft sent to resupply the ISS exploded moments after launch.
Despite the risks and the failures, we must, and will, continue to reach into space. The capacity to dream about faraway places and see ourselves in the future is a great part of human nature. The amazement I have when I watch the ISS pass overhead must be similar to feelings experienced by those in sixteenth century Europe as they watched brave adventurers set sail for the New World. I encourage my grandchildren to observe the stars and planets and to be excited about possibly going beyond our planet. They have each promised to take me along someday to Mars.
To be a part of the dream that is the ISS, watch it as it travels overhead. The ISS is visible to us every couple of weeks when the trajectory is just right, either just before dawn or soon after sunset. Sign up on the NASA website Spot the Station to receive notification when the ISS will be passing over Belton: http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/#.Vb2GVvlVhBd.
Michael Brown is an education consultant and former teacher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.