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I can still see myself as a small child, dreaming about flying. It was almost as if I was born with that dream. Perhaps it was the influence of my father, who had flown on bombers during World War II and who was flying on Air Force transport airplanes as I was growing up. Many times, he would take me and my brothers and sister to see airplanes. He would take us in the cockpits and let us sit in the pilot's seat and touch the controls. I would grab the steering wheel (it's called the "yoke") and for a few moments pretend I was flying. Was it this early fun with airplanes that gave me the dream of flight? Of course I can never know for sure, but in my dimmest, most distant memories, my dream was to fly. I was in love with the sky and everything in it.
Before I could read, I drew pictures of swirling, diving airplanes with dashed pencil lines coming from their noses and wings. The dashes were the machine gun fire. In my imagination, I was in the cockpit of that fighter, shooting an enemy plane from the sky. My childhood was a time of great fear in the world. World War II had ended but the Cold War had replaced it. Everybody was afraid that Russian bombers would drop atomic bombs on American cities. In school we practiced air raid drills and hid under our desks. I imagined that someday I would be in a fighter jet and would shoot down Russian bombers. I thought it would be fun to be in combat. Many years later, in the skies over Vietnam, I would learn a much different reality.
But as a child, when I went to bed on Christmas Eve, the only reality was toys. I prayed that Santa would bring me models of the fastest jet fighter airplanes. Even their names made my imagination fly at light speed: Starfighter, Super Sabre, Shooting Star, Thunder Chief, Delta Dagger.
For my birthdays, I wanted balsa wood gliders and airplane coloring books. I made tinker toy airplanes and erector set airplanes and paper airplanes and would run around the house holding them in my hand and making roaring sounds like a dive bomber. I used cloth and thread from my mother's sewing cabinet to make parachutes for my little plastic pilots.
As I grew older, my interest in flying and the sky intensified. I began to design my own rubber band powered gliders. Some flew magnificently, soaring silently across the nearby New Mexican desert. I would chase my creation and try to grab it before it ran out of power and crashed into a tumble weed. Other designs crashed as soon as I released them. Hours of work would end up in a pile of splintered balsa wood and fabric covering. Back in my room, I would make a change and try again. I didn't realize it then, but I was already learning something very important to a scientist and engineer. I was learning how to experiment. I was learning how to ask a question and then design a test to find the answer.
Some experiments were pretty dumb. One day, I decided to make my own parachute by just holding a sheet over my head and jumping off a high pillar on my grandmother's porch. Needless to say, the experiment failed. I ended up with a broken leg. Dumb! Dumb! Dumb! Don't ever do experiments that put your health and life at risk.
School brightened my dream of flight. I didn't like everything about school. I was just like you and every other kid. I hated tests and homework and counted the days to summer vacation. But there was a lot that I did like about the classroom. I loved learning about the sky. I loved learning about the weather, about the clouds and lightning, why it rained and why the wind blew. I built my own weather station. Dixie cups on a twisted piece of coat hanger wire served as an anemometer (a wind speed instrument). To measure humidity I used a hair from my mom's hair brush. Did you know that human hair grows and shrinks as the humidity changes? I put a thermometer outside and built a rain gauge. I learned to recognize the different types of clouds: cirrus, cumulus, stratus and nimbus. I would spend hours watching thunderstorms form over the Albuquerque mountains. What magnificent creations of nature! Their tops would be churned into giant, white cauliflowers by the summer heat. Skirts of purple rain would gather at their base. Jagged, blue-white forks of lightning would crackle through them and send booms of thunder sweeping across the desert. I loved the sound of that thunder. It was the voice of the sky, calling to me.
Weather fascinated me, but astronomy stole my soul. My most vivid grade school memory is the day I was first told about our solar system. There were other worlds out there! My imagination bubbled like a volcano! What would it be like to be on another planet? What was Venus like? Mars? Could there be other beings out there? I wanted to know everything about the solar system and the rest of the universe. Before the day was out, I had already memorized all the planets. I took my science book home and read and re-read everything in it about astronomy.
I began my astronomy experiments. First, I decided that I would map the universe. I would plot where every star was located. I took a tablet and a pencil and sat in my front yard and put a dot on the tablet to mark each star I could see. When I got inside and looked at my tablet it was just a crazy bunch of dots. It didn't look anything like the real sky.
Then, I tried to build a telescope by taping a magnifying glass to the end of a toilet paper tube. It didn't work. It made everything look farther away and upside down. But the important thing was that I tried. I experimented. I wanted to know.
Some experiments did work. After learning in class that the earth rotates about an axis that points at the North Star, I used my dad's camera to make a time exposure of that rotation. The photos showed a bunch of circles. Those were the streaks of starlight the camera had recorded as the earth had turned around the North Star. It was proof that the earth did rotate. I felt like Galileo!
Other incredible stories of the heavens came from my teacher and my science books. The starlight that I could see was thousands and thousands of years old. I was looking at a time machine. Cave men were hurling rocks at woolly mammoths when some of the starlight reaching my dad's camera had first left its source. Incredible! What would it have been like to have ridden that beam of light? What would it have been like to have streaked through trillions and trillions of miles of black space? Imagine the sights you would have seen! Imagine the swirling galaxies and planets and moons and asteroids you would have passed. I wanted to take that trip! And I did, time and time again in my dream of flight.
What I wanted most for my 11th Christmas was a telescope. I envisioned I would see the things in my science book, the clouds of space dust that looked like a horse's head and remote galaxies glowing like giant pinwheels. With a telescope I would have a machine that could fly me deeper into space.
Every night for two months leading up to Christmas, 1956, I would grab the Sear's catalog and dream of its riches. In the past it had been the pages of bicycles and of BB guns and of pocket knives that I had drooled over. But not this year. Now, it was the pages of telescopes. Sleek beauties with white barrels and mahogany tripods captured my eye. I can see them now as if the pages were in front of me. They were awesome time machines fueled by nothing but light.
Finally, the sun disappeared below the western horizon and...a STAR! The evening star had come out! In seconds I had my telescope on the tiny point of light. It looked like a small half moon. Then, I remembered. The evening star isn't a star at all. It's a planet. It's Venus. I was seeing Venus! I stared at it and let my imagination fly through the lens, out the tube and into orbit around the planet. What would the thick clouds look like? Would there be breaks in them so you could see the ground? What would Venus' surface look like? Would there be strange plants or other creatures on it?
A half moon rose above the mountains. I turned my telescope to it and gasped. It wasn't smooth, as we see with our naked eyes. Now, there were hundreds of rugged craters and mountains visible. The peaks cast razor sharp shadows and seemed close enough to touch. I had seen many science fiction movies where men and women had gone to the moon. That night, with my eye to the telescope, it was easy for me to believe somebody, someday would get there. I wanted it to be me.
Other bright "stars"
caught my attention and I discovered Jupiter and it's necklace of moons.
I could only see the five or six brightest moons but it was enough to make
me think that we earthlings had been cheated. How come we ended up with
only one moon? Wouldn't our sky be so much more fun with five moons or
ten or fifteen?
As the night wore on,
I swung my telescope to look at star after star hoping to find one that was
really a distant galaxy. But none ever looked like a glowing pinwheel. The
telescope was too weak to see any detail across those vast distances.
Still, I wasn't disappointed. I felt closer to everything I looked at,
including those tiny points of light. Were there planets in orbit about
those suns? Was there life out there? Was there some alien child standing
in his or her front yard looking at our sun through a telescope and
wondering the same thing?
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