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EPISODE Six
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CHAPTER 6

 That evening I'm relaxed enough to want a big supper.  I float to the kitchen.  It's called the "galley".   It's just a small part of the downstairs shuttle cockpit, right next to the toilet.  In fact, our bathroom, kitchen, gym, bedroom, living room, and experiment laboratory all share the same tiny area.

I select my supper from a locker: a hamburger patty, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables and strawberries for desert.  It sounds great, until you realize it's all dehydrated.  The water has been dried out of a lot of our food so it will be more compact and save storage space.  Our drinks are the same way.  They're powered: Kool-aid, milk, coffee, cocoa, tea, orange juice, etc.  We don't carry any soft drinks like Coke or Pepsi because carbonated drinks don't work very well in weightlessness.

Each food item is in a separate plastic dish that's covered with plastic.  I put them in the galley "rehydration station" where a machine adds water.  A water-gun needle pierces the plastic and water is squirted into the dish.  Using my fingers, I squeeze down on the plastic covering and stir the water into the food.  Then I put it in the oven.  It's not a microwave.  Microwave energy could interfere with the shuttle's electronics.  So our oven just has hot air blowing around inside it to heat the food.

When it's ready, I cut the plastic top open with some scissors and eat with a fork and spoon just like I would eat on earth.  Sometimes the food gets loose and you have to catch it.  I've seen astronauts swimming around in weightlessness snapping at loose food like a shark chasing a fish.

I've got tea to drink, but it's not in a glass.  If I tried to drink from a glass in weightlessness, what would happen?  Nothing.  If I tilted the glass to my mouth the tea would stay in the bottom.  So we have to drink with straws.  We have aluminum pouches with various flavored powders inside.  At the rehydration station we push the water-gun needle into the end of the pouch and add water.  After we pull out the needle we push in a straw and use it to suck out the drink.

"Hey, guys, check it out!"  One of the crew has squeezed some orange Kool-aid from his drink pouch and it's floating in mid-air.  In weightlessness, all fluids float as balls.  So a perfect sphere of orange juice floats in the middle of the cockpit!

"Let's make a solar system!"

I take peanut M&M candies and place them around the orange juice, like planets around the sun.  Mercury is a red M&M.  I use a yellow one for Venus.  Earth is green.  I continue until I have nine M&Ms floating around our orange juice sun.  It looks like a scene from a Star Trek movie where strange planets circle around a strange star!

Then I attack my creation, gobbling down the candy planets.  Finally, I take a straw, touch it to our "sun" and slurp it away.  I've eaten our entire solar system!

Another crewmember suggests a game of baseball.  The Commander pitches peanut M&Ms to a Mission Specialist who uses a pencil to hit the candy to the rest of us.  We chase after "pop flys" with our mouths.  The games are a fun way to end a very busy and exhausting day.

Bed time arrives.  Mission Control says goodnight and the rest of the crew climbs in their sleeping bags.  As I did last night, I stay awake at the windows and watch the world spin by.

It's dark now.  We're on the midnight side of the earth.  I float around the cockpit and turn off all the lights.  With no reflections on the windows I can see outside.  The view takes my breath away!

The Milky Way looks like its name, like milk.  It's a white fog of stars.  It seems as if I can see trillions of them!  Below me, meteors crash into the atmosphere as shooting stars.  They make long streaks of fiery orange and white.  Sometimes they explode into pieces when they hit the deep part of the atmosphere.

Lightning illuminates the tops of thunderstorms like sputtering light bulbs.  Over the warm parts of the earth, where there are lots of thunderstorms, I can see hundreds of flashes a minute.  But can I hear the thunder?  No.  Sound needs something to move through, like air.  The space shuttle orbits in space, which is a vacuum.  There's no air, so there can't be any sound.  In fact, somebody could set off an atomic bomb right outside the window and I wouldn't hear it.  Atlantis couldn't be rattled by the shock wave of an outside explosion, either.  Shock waves can't travel in a vacuum.  The next time you watch Star Trek, ask your mom or dad if they think the Enterprise crew would get thrown around by a "near miss" explosion.  You'll surprise them by knowing more than the producers of the show.  If there's no air, there can be no sound or shock waves or vibrations.

A real special treat comes into view.  It's an aurora!  You've probably heard of the aurora borealis or the "northern lights".  At the north pole the earth acts like a giant magnet and sucks electrically charged particles from space into the ground.  As those particles strike the atmosphere, they glow.  That causes the northern lights.  The same thing happens near the south pole.  I'm seeing the southern lights.  They're spectacular, like enormous green snakes slithering over the antarctic ice!

We float over Australia and I see city lights.  Cities look like glowing yellow spiders because of the roads that come out from their centers.  The town of Sydney, Australia has some clouds covering it, but the lights are so bright they shine through.

Seeing these lights remind me of another bet you could win with your parents.  Ask them, "Mom...Dad, is it true the only man-made object an astronaut can see from space is the Great Wall of China?"  Almost all adults believe this.  Even the TV program, Jeopardy, had that as the correct answer to a question.  But it's the wrong answer!  You can see all sorts of man-made objects from orbit: city lights, vapor trails of airplanes, large smoke trails from factories, long stretches of straight roads, very large buildings, and airport runways.

What's that?!  I see something moving!  A bright point of light is slowly gliding through space!  Could it be UFO?  I grab the binoculars and look, but it's too far away.  Then, it starts flashing!  Are alien creatures trying to signal me?!

It's impossible to know for sure, but I have a hunch what the light is.  It's just another satellite.  It's not an alien spaceship.  There are nearly 10,000 pieces of junk floating around the earth.  One of those pieces was probably far enough away that the sun was shining on it.  I was seeing sunlight reflecting from a piece of junk.  It was probably tumbling and that's what made it appear to flash.  See how your eye can be tricked?

But what about UFOs?  Are we alone in the universe?  Have other creatures flown to earth to examine us?  There's no way to know for sure.  Many people have reported seeing strange things.  Some people have even claimed to have been aboard UFOs.  But scientists have never found any real proof.  What do I believe?   Looking from Atlantis' windows I see a universe filled with stars.  There're so many that it's easy for me to think some have planets circling them.  I also think some of those planets might have life.  So, I believe there's other life in our universe.  But I don't think any creatures in flying saucers have visited us, yet.  That's what I believe.  What do you believe?

A brilliant rainbow appears on the earth's eastern horizon.  Sunrise!  Our 45 minute night is over and another 45 minute day is about to start.  But the earth below us is still pitch black.  It's like being on top of a 300 mile high mountain.  The sun always shines on mountain tops before it shines in the valley.  So we have sunlight shining on us in orbit while it's dark on the earth below.  Can you think what this means to anybody who might be watching the sky from the ground?  It means they could see us!  Just as I saw the space junk, they would be looking into a dark sky and Atlantis would be reflecting the sunlight!   So you can see satellites from earth.  Just go outside about an hour before sunrise or an hour after sunset and stare at the sky.  Within a few minutes you will probably see a moving point of light.  It won't be an airplane.  It won't have any red, green or flashing lights on it.  It will be a satellite!

Atlantis streaks further eastward and the sun rises high enough to flood the earth with light.  A new day comes to the Pacific Ocean.  I see rings of coral islands that look like floating necklaces.  On a large island, smoke drifts away from an active volcano.  The long white vapor trail of a jet crossing the sea is also visible.  It's probably an airliner going from Australia to Los Angeles.  It'll take those people 13 hours to get across the Pacific Ocean.  Atlantis will make the same flight in about 30 minutes!

The Hawaiian Islands come into view.  Clouds cover the tops of the volcanoes like ice cream on a cone.  Many more jet vapor trails appear in the sky.  Some of them crisscross like a giant game of tick-tack-toe.

For a moment I hear the whirring sound of the toilet fan.  It's the last crewmember getting ready for bed.  Then, Atlantis becomes as still as a sleeping house.  I'm very tired too, and I know I should get some rest but my brain begs me to stay awake a little while longer.

Far to the east, I see a change.  Brown appears on the horizon.  It's California.  Atlantis is approaching the western coast of America.  Los Angeles appears as a grey smudge.  Smog covers it.  Inland, I see snow-capped mountains and huge deserts.  Edwards Air Force Base, where we will land in a few days, is easy to see because it's built next to a giant dry lake.

The Colorado River cuts through the desert like a twisting, black vein in the earth's body.  I can see the large lakes that it fills: Lake Powell and Lake Mead and Lake Havasu.  Las Vegas, Nevada glistens in the sun.

A beautiful mixture of red and tan colors pass underneath.  It's the Grand Canyon!  I'm right over it!  The sight makes me think of Nature's patience and power.  It took millions of years for water to carve through thousands of feet of earth to make the canyon.    

I look south and see a giant hole in the ground.  What is it?!  Then, I remember.  It's a meteor crater.  Forty-nine thousand years ago a meteor crashed into the earth near present-day Winslow, Arizona and left the hole.  Can you imagine what that must have been like?   A black rock the size of a small house had been tumbling through empty space for billions of years.  Maybe, at one time, it had almost collided with another planet in another galaxy.  Maybe it had just missed getting sucked into a black hole.  Maybe some alien spacecraft had to put up its deflector shields to keep from being hit by it.  But on its intergalactic journey it missed everything until it passed too close to our earth.  Then, our gravity grabbed it and pulled it down.

There were probably no humans living in North America when it crashed, so the only witnesses would have been prehistoric animals.  What would they have seen?  Let your imagination take you to that moment......

A plain of amber grasses stretches to a distant, smoking volcano.  A small herd of woolly mammoths slowly walks toward a stream.  Near them, a saber-toothed tiger eats a bison he recently killed.  In the sky, giant condors wheel in circles waiting for the leftovers.  It's a clear and quiet summer day in prehistoric Arizona.

The tiger is the first to see the meteor.  He glances upward from his meal and watches the strange appearance.  The huge object is still 50 miles overhead but air friction has already heated it to thousands of degrees.  It glows brighter than the sun and leaves a long trail of white smoke behind it.

The other animals also begin to notice something is different.  A cluster of bison stare at the meteor while continuing to chew the grass and swish their tails.  A mother mammoth senses danger and bellows for its calf to come closer.  The tiger also feels uneasy and gives up on his meal.  He bounds away toward his cave.

Then the panic starts.  The fiery object grows huge.  It fills the sky above the animals.  There's still no sound because it's traveling at 45,000 miles per hour, many times faster than the speed of sound.  But just the brightness is enough to stampede the animals.  They run in all directions, stirring up clouds of dust in the process.

But there's no escape.  The meteor slams into the earth with an explosive force that's equal to 15 million tons of TNT.  Everything within miles of the impact is instantly killed.  Even far away, animals are killed by the rain of dirt and boulders that the collision throws into the air.  Hot pieces of rock fall in forests and start raging fires.  The sonic boom of the meteor finally reaches earth and cracks across the plain in a loud BOOM, but there's nothing alive to hear it.  Where all the animals had been is now nothing but a smoking hole four thousand feet wide and six hundred feet deep. 

Can you see it?  As I glide over the crater, I can see the story as clearly as a movie. 

Another river appears.  It's the Rio Grande.  A dark patch spreads from it's eastern shore.  It's Albuquerque, New Mexico!  It's my home!

The sight chokes me with tears.  They flood my eyes and cling in weightless drops to my eyelids.  I blot them away but more follow.  I'm not ashamed.  I'm not embarrassed.  I'm overcome with happiness.  From 300 miles high, I'm watching my dream come true.  I want to shout my joy for all the world to hear!

More memories of the dream flash in my mind's eye like photographs from a picture album.  One shows me sitting in the cockpit of my dad's plane, pretending to be a pilot.  Another captures my balsa wood glider soaring through the crystal blue New Mexican sky.  I can see my airplane coloring books and tinker toy planes and my telescope.  I can see myself watching the stars from my front yard, from the very place now passing 300 miles beneath me!  I can see everything about my dream.  Everything..... 

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