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"Atlantis, Houston is back with you. Your energy and ground track look nominal."
"Roger, Houston...We read you loud and clear."
I can almost hear everybody sigh. We're breathing again. We're through the worst heat and we're still alive! We're going to make it!
Now, the vibrations begin. We're passing 30 miles altitude and the air is really thick. At least it feels thick to a huge glider that's traveling through it at 10000 miles per hour! It howls around the cockpit and shakes us like a roller coaster. It's also rapidly slowing us down and putting us in danger.
Danger? What danger?
We're in danger of fainting. The same g-force that pulled the loose M&M to the floor is now pulling blood from our heads. I get "tunnel vision". There's not enough blood reaching the part of the brain that allows me to see. My side vision slowly gets blacker and blacker until it looks like I'm seeing through a tunnel. I'm in danger of complete blackout, of fainting.
But I have a way to fight the g's. Underneath my pressure suit, I'm wearing an anti-g suit. It's a rubber bladder that goes around my stomach and legs. I twist a control knob on the leg of my suit and air rushes into the bladder. It squeezes my stomach and legs very hard. My belly button feels like it's being crushed into my backbone, the squeeze is so tight. It hurts. But I don't care. It's saving me from fainting. It's keeping blood flowing to my head. That's what an anti-g suit does. It prevents blood from going into your legs and allows the heart to send it to your brain. That keeps you conscious. But the stomach squeeze makes it difficult to talk. We sound like grunting weight lifters.
Further and further the fall continues.
Land ho! The coast of California comes into view. Los Angeles sparkles in a hazy sunlight. In a minute, they're going to be hit with our shock wave. It'll rattle windows with a twin "BOOM-BOOM" sound. Edwards Air Force Base appears. There's not a cloud in the sky. It's perfect landing weather.
Things begin to happen quickly now. The shuttle is plunging earthward with all the grace of a brick. The Commander will have only one chance for a landing. To help him, a steady stream of information comes from Mission Control. The radios are filled with a babble of technical talk.
"TACANs look good."
"Air data probes are out."
"Roger...incorporate air data."
"Good MLS lock."
"I'm going CSS."
"Wind's are two-five-zero at five knots."
"Energy is nominal."
"I'm on the HAC."
The desert grows bigger and bigger in the windows. Atlantis is in a diving turn for the runway.
"Radar altimeter is in....300 knots...looking good...4000 feet...290 knots...3000....2000...pre-flare."
The Commander raises Atlantis' nose. We're only a minute from landing and the wheels are still up. Why do we wait so long? It's because Atlantis is a glider. If we lower the wheels early, the extra air-drag confuses the computers. So we wait until the last second. Many people worry about this and say, "But what happens if the wheels don't come down?" It doesn't matter if the wheels don't come down at 50,000 feet or 1000 feet. The same thing will happen. We'll crash land. You can't keep a glider in the air to try some type of emergency wheel lowering. So, you might as well wait until the last second and let the shuttle fly for as long as possible as a streamlined glider.
"Gear!" The Commander finally orders the wheels to be lowered. The Pilot presses two buttons and the landing gear begins to unfold.
"300 feet...200...100...205 knots...50 feet...202 knots..."
The Pilot keeps up a steady call of our altitude and airspeed so the Commander can concentrate on the runway.
"20 feet...203 knots...10...5...touchdown." The shuttle shakes and rattles over the dry lake desert. The nose comes down in a puff of dust.
We're safely on the ground. The mission is over. In the cockpit we all cheer and shake hands. But my heart is a little sad. I wish I could still be in space, living my dream. What a glorious, wonderful, magnificent dream it's been!
But it's somebody else's turn, now. Somewhere a girl or boy is watching on TV as Atlantis rolls to a stop. In their rooms are models of airplanes and rockets. Star Trek posters cover their walls. Books about rockets and astronauts are on their shelves. They have the dream.
Is it you? Do you have the dream of being an astronaut? Or do you dream of being a teacher, lawyer, doctor, nurse, scientist, engineer or anything else? How do you make that dream come true? Or do dreams only come true for a few very smart, special kids.
I wasn't particularly smart. I had to work very hard to get good grades. In high school I was a "B+" student. And I certainly wasn't special. I didn't come from a famous family. We weren't rich and we weren't poor. I had four brothers and a sister. I was second in birth order. When I was 9 years old, my father caught polio and lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Except for that, my family was an ordinary one.
So my dream didn't come true because I was different from all the other boys and girls my age. I played with trucks and frogs. I played Little League baseball. I was in the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts. Sometimes I got in trouble at school or with my parents. I was grounded and spanked. One time I was even arrested by the police for throwing a water balloon at some other teenagers. There was nothing special about me.
So, my dream of being an astronaut didn't come true because I was a very smart and special child. Why then, did it? How can you turn a dream into reality?
First, you must believe in yourself. You must believe that you can be anything, do anything. Remember...dare yourself! There's another boy or girl inside of you that wants to prove how really smart they are. Give them a chance. Give yourself a dare. Dare yourself to dream BIG! Dare yourself to believe you can be anything!
Does that mean it will automatically happen? Just because you believe you can be a doctor or nurse or teacher or scientist or astronaut, will it happen? No. Just believing won't make a dream come true. Michael Jordan would never have become a great basketball player by just sitting around dreaming about it. He worked very hard to develop the tools needed to be a star. He worked to develop his endurance and speed and agility. Everybody needs tools to turn their dreams into reality. What tools do you need?
You need an education. Without an education dreams shrivel up and die. You can wish all you want. You can believe in yourself. But without an education, you will never see your dream come true. Stay in school! Study! Learn!
What's the most important subject to study? That's an easy one. Reading. If you can't read, your education stops. You can't study math, history, science or anything else. You must be a good reader for a dream to come true!
What else do you need?
You need your health. You can have everything I've talked about. You can believe in yourself. You can be a straight-A student. You can be the best reader in the world. But if you have damaged your health with drugs, alcohol or tobacco, will your dream come true? No. These are poisons that will take your dream and your life. Take care of your body. It's the only one you'll ever have and you're the only person that can guard it from danger.
Respect for others is another key to making dreams come true. You can't dream of being a pilot and hate to work with women. Your wingman, the person that will guard your tail in a dogfight, may be a woman. You can't be an astronaut and hate blacks. Your Commander, the man or woman who holds your life in their hands, may be black.
For a dream to come true, you must be a team player. You must respect everybody regardless of their gender or race or religion. Remember my astronaut interview? Did NASA ask me to do a calculus problem? No. They wanted to know if I could work well with other people. They wanted to know if I was a team player. Are you? Could you be on a team with somebody that's a different color or religion than you are?
In your dream quest, you must also be prepared to face things that you cannot control. Remember my story. I had believed in myself. I had worked hard in school. I had taken care of my body and had learned to respect other people. But I had no control over my eyesight. When that went bad, my dream of being a fighter pilot and test pilot and top gun and astronaut came to a screeching stop. But if something you cannot control interferes with your dream, what do you do? Do you give up? Or do you dare yourself to follow another dream? That's what I did. I dared myself to be the best backseater in Air Force fighters. I dared myself to be the best aeronautical engineer. I didn't know it at the time, but those dares kept my dream of being an astronaut alive for 10 years! Don't ever give up. When things you can't control get in the way, then dare yourself into another dream. Who knows, maybe the second or third dream will make the first one come true. It did for me.
Atlantis is stopped now. A convoy of support trucks with flashing lights are speeding toward us. In the upper cockpit we follow checklists to power down the shuttle. We unstrap from our seats, climb down the ladder to the lower cockpit and duck through the hatch. Stairs have been driven up to the side of the shuttle. For a moment, we all stand on the top platform breathing deeply of the wonderful scent of desert sagebrush. The Commander, Pilot and other Mission Specialists file down the stairs. I follow them, holding onto the rail in case my wobbly legs should collapse. When a TV camera momentarily focuses on me, I smile and wave. Though they don't know it, I'm waving at all the dreamers who are watching. I'm waving at the kids who someday will feel the roar of mighty engines at their backs, the crush of g-forces on their chests and see the black of space racing into their faces.
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