Eyes on the Brain

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Were You Nervous? Watching My Husband Blast Off Into Space.

Watching a space launch with my husband on board.

This morning, the Space Shuttle Endeavour rocketed into space. As always, I think about the families involved, especially with this mission since Gabrielle Gifford's husband, Mark Kelley, is commanding the flight. This launch, the final one for Endeavour, also brings back a host of memories all centered around the early morning hours of January 11, 1996 when my husband Dan Barry, blasted off on Endeavour on the first of his three Space Shuttle missions. When I think back on his spaceflights, I remember most clearly the large community of people who trained the astronauts and kept the shuttles flying. As a wife of an astronaut, it is to these people that I feel a great debt.

The most common question I am asked about Dan's space launches is an obvious one: "Were you nervous?" Of course, I was nervous, but NASA instilled in me a sense that I and my children were a part of the mission, and this sense of common purpose helped mitigate the fears. So too, did all the protocols and traditions surrounding the launch.

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Three days prior to launch, the children and I, along with the other crew members' families, were flown to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Two astronauts, not assigned to the flight, served as our "family escorts." They took me and the other spouses on a tour of the launch pad where we rode an elevator high up to the "white room" where we could peer through the door of Endeavour and get a glimpse of where the astronauts would be sitting. I had been inside a mock-up of the Space Shuttle many times, but the vehicle had always been positioned like an airplane with its wheels on the ground and its nose facing forward. On the launch pad, Endeavour's nose was pointed skyward so it took me a full minute to get my bearings and figure out what I was seeing when I looked inside the real shuttle.

On the day preceding launch, it is traditional for the spouse to throw a reception for her launch guests. At first, I thought this was a huge imposition. Dan would not be present at the party because he, like his fellow crew members, was in quarantine, lest he be infected with a cold or other disease at the last minute. But, I later realized that the reception served an important function. Like most spouses, I had three hundred or more launch guests, and many wanted to see me and wish me well. The reception provided a time and a place to meet everyone. And it was good to see so many friends and relatives. Dan's first launch date occurred right after a major snowstorm in the Northeast, and many came with heroic stories about sleeping overnight in airports or driving through blizzard conditions to make it to Florida. Their good wishes meant a great deal. One of Dan's former professors handed me a special gift which he had been saving for me for several months. When I removed the wrapping paper, I found a four leaf clover.

Just as in the movie Apollo 13, there really was a moment when the astronauts stood on one side of a grassy ditch while the extended family gathered on the other. The only difference from the movie was that I was allowed to stand with Dan while we shouted greetings to our loved ones. I kissed Dan good-bye there for the final time before flight and then joined my family on the other side of the divide.

On the night of the launch, my children and I along with the other crew families were taken by bus to the Launch Control Center at Cape Canaveral, a building located a few miles from the launch pad and about as close as you can get at launch-time without wearing protective fire gear. Here, the kids were given a very important task. Before each launch, the kids of the astronauts decorate a large white board using felt tip markers.

They always draw the patch for the mission and then add their own figures or maybe messages for their mom or dad. Later, the white board is sprayed with fixative and mounted on a wall in a long hallway of the Launch Control Center. As we passed down this hall on the way up to the viewing site on the roof during the final minutes before launch, we passed all the white boards. This brought tears to my eyes. The whole hallway was like one enormous refrigerator door, filled with kids' writing and art.

Dan's first launch occurred at 4:41 AM. Shortly before the main engines lit, the outside lights around Cape Canaveral were extinguished. I hugged the kids, and when the rockets took off, they turned night into day. I was not prepared for the piercing white light of the main engines upon ignition, the power of the boosters, the noise - a loud crackle that sounds like nothing else on earth - and the shock wave that followed. It rattled the guard rails around the roof.

After MECO, Main Engine Cut Off, when the shuttle had exhausted its launch fuel and was now in orbit, we returned inside the Launch Control Center for a small celebration and the ritual eating of beans for good luck on the mission. Then a sticker with the mission patch was affixed to the office door of the director of the Launch Control Center. (When one director retired, they gave him as a parting gift the whole door and installed a new door complete with patches in its place.)

For me though, the most poignant and surprising consequence of Dan's first space shuttle launch was the effect it had on our extended family. They were not with me and the kids at the time of launch but were at a different and special viewing site. We all got together though that afternoon in my parent's rented hotel room. As I approached the room, I felt its energy. The floor boards seem to shake and, when I entered the room, I was wrapped in one embrace after another. Most wonderful of all was was the presence of one cousin and one brother-in-law, both of whom were suffering from terminal cancer. For the past year, both had spent their days in and out of hospitals and in chemotherapy, in the land of the sick. Yet, both had made it to the launch. "Friggin fantastic!" exclaimed my cousin. To see her so excited and so happy made me realize that the launch had returned her and my brother-in-law for one precious day to the land of the healthy, the land of the living. To see, hear, and feel Endeavour's launch was the best gift that my husband and I have ever given our family.

 

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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