"Ground control to Commander Sagers?"
The question brought me back to the surreality of the moment, away from multiple reminisces of a childhood where I watched an orange blaze head towards the heavens. Back from quotes of both Star Trek and The Simpsons which swirled through my head: Captain Kirk famously voicing Gene Roddenberry's sentiment that space is the final frontier; Frank Grimes incredulously asking Homer Simpson about going into space, to which a dumfounded Homer replied, "You've never been?"
I was thinking about Live From Space, National Geographic Channel's global live event special airing tonight at 8 p.m. ET, which brings viewers into the International Space Station with astronauts for a two-hour trip (literally) around the world. I was thinking about how -- in some infinitesimally small way -- I was joining the ranks of astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata, who are currently 220 miles above us.
The calm voice again: "Ground control to Commander Sagers..."
Mission control was piping in through my headset. I reached up, flipped the appropriate switches on my overhead panel, then pushed a series of buttons on the panel to my right. My pilot read a series of instructions from the flight deck seat to my right. Moments later, the view of stars changes into the landscape of Earth, then the landing strip of Kennedy Space Center. I continue to talk into my headset to control, but I'm really focused on the control column and the ground that's getting closer.
From Earth to space, and back again, I was landing the space shuttle. Well, kind of.
Huntsville, Alabama: As an adult in his mid-30s, I'd finally achieved a boyhood dream of attending Space Camp, and it was everything I hoped for. My wings were on and I was rocking a flight suit, somehow having achieved the rank of Commander. Along with a merry spacefaring band of journalists, I was assigned a mission to launch into orbit, conduct some experiments and successfully bring the bird back home into the gravitational embrace of the big blue marble we call home.
Throughout a day of training, I was spun around in the Multi-Axis Trainer (MAT) cages that train astronauts for the disorientation; I simulated a moonwalk (and cartoon space run from alien zombies); learned about the weightlessness of space and built constructs underwater with SCUBA instructors; zipped around in all angles in the Manned Maneuvering Unit jet pack (the same thing George Clooney unrealistically used to cover so much area in Gravity). And of course, I launched and landed the space shuttle orbiter from a cockpit simulator.
I grew up in Central Florida, and was fortunate to witness shuttle launches by merely walking outside and looking up. Still, Space Camp made me feel like I was part of something bigger. It reminded and energized me of the truth that we humans have the ability to, as aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr. said, slip "the surly bonds of Earth."
Sure, sounds a little dramatic. But here's the thing: It should be. Traveling to space has, unfortunately, become a mundane idea for those of us planted on terra firma. Our interest in the space program seems to have waned in an environment (justifiably) concerned about the economy, global politics, bizarre weather patterns and The Bachelor finale.
Perhaps it is because we are too far, literally and figuratively, from the International Space Station. It is easy to forget about the science taking place way up there, even if it has a direct impact on us down here. But what Live From Space does, based on the clips I've seen so far, is make a direct correlation between the two. The special will take viewers inside the floating laboratory to show how science is helping us earthfolk -- such as by demonstrating the robotic systems adapted by neuroscience for brain surgery.
Live From Space succeeds in performing a task crucial to science exploration: Exciting and engaging the public. Space station astronauts Mastracchio and Wakata, along with astronaut Mike Massimino and host Soledad O'Brien -- who will be live tonight from Houston -- bring the public into the most forbidding place a human can venture. Pre-packaged segments such as "Drowning In Space," focusing on what happened when an astronaut was stuck in a space-suit filling with floating water, illustrates the very real and ever present dangers of the job. But the special also addresses the everyday questions about maintaining hygiene, sleeping, eating and using the toilet in space. In a way, the special both grounds the work of the ISS while launching the audience into orbit.
Space Camp made me care about space exploration in a way that I admittedly haven't in a long while. It reminded me of that enthusiastic kid who would visit Kennedy Space Center and watch as mankind collectively reached out its hand to touch the face of god. I believe Live From Space has the potential to have a similar impact on audiences tonight. I hope it energizes us to want to spend more time in the final frontier.