Shortly after losing all my sight, I came across a story about how nausea was a common problem for astronauts in the Space Shuttle program. There was a theory circulating that it might have something to do with hand-eye coordination. I thought, hmmm…they should send a blind guy up on the shuttle as a control subject. If the sighted astronauts got queasy and the blind person didn’t, Voila! Evidence to support the theory.
I wrote the Kennedy Space Center with my idea and volunteered for NASA’s Space Shuttle program as a payload specialist. I was ready to be an astronaut and do my bit for the agency. Truth be known, I loved outer space and wanted to be in it. I wanted to experience g-forces, float in space and drink lots of Tang. Oh yeah, to be the first blind guy in space would also look good on the resume.
After several weeks turned into several months without a response, I wrote again, and again, no answer. Then, through a lucky contact, I was introduced to Florida Congressman William Lehman, who took interest in my quest and who held sway with authority. When you have someone in your corner who has an elementary school and a causeway named after him, and is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, you’ve got game!
True to form, it’s not what you know but who you know. Congressman Lehman leveraged his considerable contacts and I got a response shortly thereafter from some official NASA person in Houston, thanking me for my interest in the space program and who clarified that I would not be considered at this time.
Actually, I was sort of relieved. After receiving Congressman Lehman’s endorsement and my wish moved closer to reality, I recalled that when I was a kid, I use to get motion sickness while sitting in the back seat of a car. So, floating around in space might not have been such a good idea. I put the letter in my scrapbook and was happy to continue my life on Earth.
Nevertheless, I was in the habit of monitoring each Space Shuttle blastoff and was fascinated with the missions; loved the countdowns, loved the narrations from space, loved the possibilities that space offered. I wanted my son George to observe a live launching so we could hear the roar of the mighty engines.
In late January 1986, we visited Disney World for Georges 4th birthday and had planned to head over to the Space Coast for a scheduled shuttle liftoff at Cape Canaveral, but we were running behind after checking out of the hotel and decided to go straight home.
It was unusually cold that day and there was a buzz of excitement in the air. I quickly strapped George into his car seat so I could turn on the radio and catch the countdown. I tuned in as we pulled out of the parking lot but was 73 seconds too late for the liftoff – the Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded.
I rolled down my window and swore I could hear a collective outcry in the air. Perhaps it was a chorus of souls. Even though we were about 50 miles from the cape, I felt we were there. I could smell the burning fumes hanging in the air and felt numb.
My mind immediately went to Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who was onboard the Challenger, the first “civilian” to be approved, trained and greenlit for a shuttle mission. It took her 3 years to train to be an astronaut and I was rejected just 3 years before this disaster. It could have been me on that shuttle.
McAuliffe was to teach some lessons from space. It’s that line item on the universal lesson plan that temporarily had me spooked: Be careful what you wish for.
Now years later, I know that we can’t let fear rob us of our dreams and aspirations. Bad things happen to good people (and sometimes good things happen to bad people). We are best off taking our own bold steps forward and not measure ourselves against the fortunes or misfortunes of others.
Certainly, risk is a big factor when realizing dreams. Risk requires bravery. It takes courage going off to summer camp for the first time, leaning in for your first kiss or strapping yourself in for a flight to the moon.
When you’re blind, you’ve got to be a little bit brave every day; living in darkness helps promote that leap of faith into the unknown.
We either choose to live in a bubble or take some risk. And it is that same risk that brings both disappointment and wonder. We never know if it will be tragedy or love that we will face until we take that leap into the void.
Steve Gladstone, The Blind Dude