Ground Control to Major Matt

With the death--er, hiatus--of the space program, a childhood toy is remembered

Originally published in Salon, July/2011.

With the final mission of the space shuttle looming Friday, NASA puts a lid on five decades of U.S. space exploration with nary an ace left up its sleeve. Let’s face it, hitching future rides out of a launch facility in Kazakhstan doesn’t constitute a program so much as a glorified car service. And while some enthusiasts might feel a bit of a black hole each time they look skyward, I only need glance at the upper corner of my computer monitor to experience a sense of loss.

For the last twenty-five years, from the time I landed my first job out of college in 1986, the year Challenger went go at throttle up and then went no more, a small, bendable astronaut named Major Matt Mason has been perched atop my display.

Rescued long ago from the attic of my parent’s house on Long Island, not five miles from Plant 5 at the Grumman Aerospace Corporation, where the Apollo Lunar Module was built and where my father spent his days scrawling bizarre math figures resembling hieroglyphics on chalkboards located inside buildings I was rarely allowed to visit (“What do you do, dad?” I once asked, and he replied, helpfully, “You wouldn’t understand.”), this little action figure—never call it a doll—has always been within reach.

His blue eyes fading under cracking paint, his rubber arm dangerously close to amputation, Major Matt looks down at me as I type, though lately I’m the one staring back wistfully. STS-135 may be the end of an era for NASA—for physicists, aeronautical engineers and tens of thousands of other folks who scored 800 on their math—but it’s the end of the line for us non-science space pretenders as well; those of us who don’t know their yaw from their pitch, who get nervous just hearing words like geosynchronous orbit, yet whose childhood is inextricably tethered, like Billy Mumy in the opening credits of Lost in Space, to all things astronaut.

Like so many other seven-year-olds in 1969, I wanted to be tethered to a capsule, too, right up until the day I rode the LIRR into New York City with my grandfather, who, after opening some accounts at Republic Bank and securing some free toasters, took me to the top of the Empire State Building. Couple my newly discovered acrophobia with another crippling disease for a fledgling astronaut, not having a single scientific bone in my body, and my space years were numbered before they ever began.

But it’s impossible to have grown up near Bethpage, New York during that time—in the shadow of Farmingdale’s Republic Aviation, builder of the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt, and a stone’s throw from Roosevelt Field, site of Lindbergh’s takeoff, and, most importantly, in a place that served as the universal answer to any local elementary school career day question: What does your father do? He works at Grumman—and not come out the other end a space geek. On my block alone two kids, not one, were building futuristic hovercraft in their garages. Paging Steven Spielberg.

That’s why this English major can still remember what doomed Apollo 1 on the launch pad (the capsule was pressurized with pure oxygen); what the title of Michael Collins’ lunar memoir was (Carrying the Fire); and still name with ease the original seven Mercury astronauts. Two C’s, two G’s and three S’s, my mental cheat sheet still at the ready. (Glenn and Grissom are easy, but the last “S” is a guaranteed trump card, as few people ever come up with Deke Slayton, and fewer still know that while even though he never flew a Mercury mission, Slayton finally got his chance in 1975 during Apollo-Soyuz.)

Aerospace so dominated life on Long Island that if you said you were from Bethpage not a single person asked about the Black course or golf—only Grumman. The Black, host to two recent U.S. Opens, was in a bit of disrepair then, and thought of, at least by the under-12 set, only as a good place to sled in winter.

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