27: The Reluctant Astronaut

27: The Reluctant Astronaut

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

The Reluctant Astronaut

I still say, “Shoot for the moon; you might get there.”

~Buzz Aldrin

It was 1955 and my family was vacationing in New York City where we visited the Hayden Planetarium. This fine institution still flourishes, and today, through modern technology, offers virtual trips through space and firsthand looks at a re-creation of the Big Bang start of the universe.

In those days, shows were mostly projections of the night sky on the overhead dome. After the show, we saw a stand with a large ledger in the lobby. Visitors could sign up for a trip to the moon when that became feasible. Only a few pages had been filled. My dad declined, but I signed up. My mother, I’m sure in the spirit of looking out for a family member, wrote her name under mine. There the matter rested for the next few years.

President Kennedy launched the space program, and the original seven astronauts were chosen. Like most Americans, I was fascinated, but my mom was secretly alarmed. She had gotten it into her head that the government planned to begin flights at once. A primary facet of mom’s persona was that you absolutely had to do whatever you said you would do. Since she and I had put our names down on an official-looking document, our time to go into space would come soon. I told her that the Hayden Planetarium was not a branch of the government, much less NASA, and we were in no danger of being selected. She listened carefully, but in the end patted my arm as she had when I was small and told her about the tigers that lurked behind the neighbor’s shrubbery.

“Yes, dear. I’m sure that’s true, dear.”

She was humoring me while not believing a word.

The tragedy of Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967, reinforced her notion that moon voyages were practically suicide missions. The fact that I was deploying for a year to Vietnam almost that same day caused her a lot more anxiety than I ever knew. Just before Christmas of 1968, I was home on leave from the Navy. My sister’s husband worked for NASA in the training department at the Cape. Consequently, my family had front-row seats for the launch of Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the moon.

That night, we gathered in my sister’s yard, all of us staring up at the nearly full moon and talking about the men up there. My sister had let slip to her husband that my mom worried she and I were on some list for moon missions. Before I could stop him, he pretended to confirm this and offered to find out how long before we would be strapped in and sent off. I dragged him aside and, in no uncertain terms, informed him he would suffer dire consequences unless he confessed the whole thing was a joke. He confessed, but again my mother wasn’t really convinced.

On the long car ride back to Alabama, she kept returning to the fact that he was in the NASA program. “But dear,” she would say, “Glen works there. He must know how they are chosen.”

“Mom, that was just his twisted idea of humor. He told you it wasn’t so.”

“He was just saying that to make me feel better.”

Each Apollo mission, I would get a call from her, ostensibly just to chat, but with the fear that she and I were now three people closer to our turn. When my business required travel to New York, I offered to return to the planetarium and rip out the page with our names. My mom, who never broke a law in her life or even jaywalked, was horrified. To her, obligation was sacred, even though it involved what she thought was mortal danger. With the return of Apollo 17 in December 1972 and the announced end of the manned moon program, I hoped her anxiety would end. When the space shuttle program started up, I felt she might worry again, but if so, I didn’t hear about it.

Years later, I was with her during her final illness. As she drifted in and out of sleep, I thought about the woman I had known all my life. Her life had begun during the horse-and-buggy era and ended in the space age. She came from grinding poverty as a girl to self-sufficiency through her own efforts. She had come through two world wars and the Great Depression. Later, she and my dad raised two kids on what would be poverty-level income today, but we never felt poor. There had to have been many times she had fears, but she conquered them. Now, her body seemed small and frail, but her gallant spirit had not gone. Her eyes fluttered open, and we chatted about things for a few minutes. Then, apropos of nothing, she said, “You know, in some ways I’m kind of sorry they never did call us for that moon trip.” She gave a tiny, mischievous grin. “I would have been scared, but if I was called, I would have gone.”

“I know you would have, Mom,” I responded. “I never doubted it.”

~Charlie Wyatt

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