Don't tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon

By Sawyer Rosenstein for Boing Boing

"It's still flying?"

This is a question I and many of my fellow space enthusiasts have been hearing a lot lately. As the space shuttle program comes to an end, public excitement around space travel seems to be rekindled. Attention sparked up again as people heard that Space Shuttle Atlantis was preparing to launch for the last time, marking the end of the space shuttle program. But for one young person, that interest had never faded, and witnessing the shuttle's final flight became an imperative, a very personal hope and dream. That person was me.

When I was 12, in my middle school gym locker room, I was sucker-punched in the stomach by a bully and subsequently paralyzed. Prior to this incident, I was a professional actor. I traveled from my home in New Jersey into New York City and was the voice behind some well-known commercials, doing voiceovers, jingles, and other spots. To go from performing card tricks for a DVD to my body playing tricks on me was truly a difficult experience. In the same situation, many others have succumbed to the misery of that experience, and in doing so, have become unable to realize their full potential. But I realized that there was still a whole world out there, and that one event, even an event this significant and painful, should not ruin my life. I wanted to be someone who never says never, and gets up when he is down. This is what has got me through life, and to where I am today.

After months of rehabilitation, I realized that I couldn't go back to the summer camp I had been attending to study acting. My parents started looking for another place for me to go for summer camp, and they found the Lower Hudson Valley Challenger Center. The Challenger Centers for Space Science Education were founded out of the of the ashes of the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986: the families of the crew members wanted to build a living memorial to their loved ones, and continue their goal of education (this fated shuttle mission had included the first school teacher). Now, there are nearly 50 Challenger Centers worldwide, and they offer activities that include running simulated space missions to the moon, Mars, and to rendezvous with a comet.. My family and I learned that the maximum age for the center's summer camp was 12, and by that time, I was already 13. But the director of the center, John Huibregtse, didn't turn me away. I became the summer camper who never left, and to this day, I remain an employee of the now renamed Town of Ramapo Challenger Center. This turning point four years ago was the spark that jump-started my love of space.

At the encouragement of a good friend, I took that love of space to Twitter and became @thenasaman. I was quickly overwhelmed by the response from people who shared the same passion for space exploration. I knew I had found something for me. When I was in the hospital again and again over the last two years, lying in a bed waiting for one of my 19 surgeries, I knew there were people out there who cared about me and were there for me all the way through.
One day I saw read a tweet from somebody who was "fed up" with the way space travel was portrayed in media, and wanted to start a podcast. I figured, why not? One thing led to another, and Gene Mikulka, Mark Ratterman, Gina Herlihy and I became the team of Talking Space. Who knew that our little podcast, which started out so small on September 9, 2009, would evolve into what it is today: a steady listener base of over 25,000 people, simulcast on the website Astronomy.FM, and a recognized media source by NASA.

And that leads me to my adventures at the Kennedy Space Center. We knew media would be swarming to cover the final launch of STS-135, and we knew it would be hard to get in. But we all applied for press credentials. With the help of the amazing Miles O'Brien, a former CNN anchor and science correspondent who was doing launch coverage for PBS and the website Spaceflight Now, I was accepted as a member of the press. My fellow podcast team members were also approved to cover the launch as media. The funniest part is that the entire team had never before been together under one roof (or in this case, a tent) at the same time. This was to be history for us, too, as the shuttle program completed its 30-year history.

As the team made its way to Cape Canaveral for launch, we anxiously anticipated what the final launch might bring. As we passed through the doors of the KSC press building, we were in shock. The sheer number of people packed into such a small space was mind-boggling. So many countries were represented. "Where were these people over the last 30 years?," we asked each other. It was phenomenal to see such a turnout, but where were they for the lesser-known missions?
We sat in the sacred grounds of the NASA press auditorium. I was ready. The microphone was passed up to me. I asked my question, something I had seen many famous names in space reporting do. I received an amazing answer. The pride I felt in just being able to ask a simple question overwhelmed me. Who knows how good it'll feel once I finally receive professional training, when I attend the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University this fall.
The astronaut interviews came and went, the press conferences began and ended, and the tours and visits to the launch pad concluded. I was within 150 feet of the space shuttle for Rotating Service Structure retraction. That was truly tremendous, to see the grandeur of such an American icon less than 24 hours before it leaves the tugs of Earth.

And then, launch day finally arrived: July 8, 2011. I had seen one previous launch before, STS-130, which was a night launch of the space shuttle Endeavour (I attended through the Make-A-Wish Foundation). But this would be my first daytime launch—and my last, and the world's last.

To see the shuttle sitting on launch pad 39A, to look at the machine which mankind—not just Americans—sculpted, designed, built, and maintained, meant so much. There sat the pride of America's space travels over the last 30 years. The most complex and beautiful machine ever built was poised and ready to show her awesome might, to light the engines one last time, igniting America's passion for exploration and knowledge, and send into space the hopes and dreams of not only a nation, but of the entire human race. As the clock ticked down, and I broadcast it live to over 200,000 people listening around the world, we all held our breath together. The countdown clock stopped at 31 seconds until liftoff, as engineers examined a warning.

The vehicle was quickly re-cleared for launch and the count started back up. I knew that what was about to happen would remain embedded in the minds of all who witnessed it for years to come. The engines ignited, the shuttle cleared the tower, and then I saw…absolutely nothing! Yet, I heard…absolutely nothing! I looked for the vehicle, and I was suddenly temporarily blinded by some bright light. My eyes adjusted, and I saw the mighty Atlantis roar skyward, fulfilling the dream of a nation and a civilization of bringing humans into space. The noise of the engines gradually increased until it was deafening. You hear the vehicle, as the air crackles with life, but you also feel it throughout your chest as it vibrates you from the inside out. You can truly feel the power of the vehicle, not just in Joules or Newtons, but in the human ingenuity and pride from the thousands of people who have worked on it.

Anybody born within the last 30 years knows no other American vehicle for manned space flight but the space shuttle. Even though this program is over, the dream remains alive. After seeing this launch, I know that dream will stay with me forever. The experience of seeing Atlantis launch on that cloudy, muggy morning is permanently engraved in my thoughts. The feeling I had as the sound reached us at the press site will stay with me forever. I hope someday I will feel that again. I do not doubt that we will soon see an American rocket lifting off a launch pad in Florida, and that from the technological lessons we've learned from the space shuttle, that the next vehicle may be even safer, and that the advancements made since this program will help those on Earth. Maybe they will even allow me to walk again one day.

There is a phrase I live by. It is true not only for the space program, but for life in general:

Don't tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon.

-Sawyer Rosenstein

Photos: Courtesy of Sawyer Rosenstein. Shuttle photo: REUTERS/Pierre Ducharme.