A is for Astronaut

She’d always wanted to be an astronaut, ever since she discovered that plastic helmet in her grandparent’s attic. It had a green visor that turned the world a magical, alien color when she put it on her head. It was so much more than wearing tinted sunglasses. Everywhere she looked was altered. There was no “normal” sneaking in her peripheral vision. That was covered with the helmet. Sounds were different too – more muffled, more distant. It made her feel safer, more peaceful, more powerful to wear it.

She was born in a time before there were words for what she was. “Gifted” they knew for sure, but there was more. She was sensitive, perhaps overly so. Now she would say it was a gift to feel in an unfeeling world, but then she thought it a challenge, if not a curse. It was hard to keep friends. She made them like anyone else. It was easy in the jumble that was public school. People became friends easily, often for no other reason than survival. They joined up out of some instinct that said it was dangerous to go alone into that minefield of strange rules and stranger adults. Best to connect with others who are equally lost or oppressed. This is why cliques formed after all. Once the obvious groups were created by hobby or skill, what was often left were the oddballs, the misfits, the loners. They connected as a way of self-protection, an unspoken union with no dues or representatives

She’d fit in these groups for about a month or so, just long enough for her or them to quietly decide that there wasn’t a fit after all and one side or the other would quit spending time with each other. Thankfully this was before the era of social media, or as she thought of it now, anti-social media.

She was 50 now – far past the age of recruits to astronaut school. She was in good shape and probably could have endured the training, but it wasn’t even an option. Or so she thought. She looked it up. There were no age restrictions. The oldest so far was 46. She’d been telling herself “no” without even asking the question. She just assumed it wasn’t possible, so for her, it wasn’t. Maybe deep down her former friends knew this about her – knew her lonely fear of failure, her feckless worry. Perhaps they were afraid of catching her secret disease of failing before she even began.

But she was a different person now. There had been growth on her part. It was a blend of self-help books and counseling that finally pushed her over the edge of her fear. It was like she’d been forever standing at the cliffside, afraid of falling to her death – all the while not realizing she had wings.

How could birds know they were birds after all? Their wings were behind them. Their mothers appeared as if by magic. How could they know they too had that same magic, waiting to be revealed?

Perhaps her fair-weather friends had done her a favor after all, without even realizing it. By quietly abandoning her, she’d learned to value her own company. She’d learned how to be her own friend and how to take care of things herself. These turned out to be valuable traits in an astronaut.

Because now that is exactly what she was determined to become. She applied to the program, confident and beaming. She saved up her money and quit her job so she could commit all her energy to this. There was no backing out. There was no Plan B. It was A for Astronaut all the way. The moon (at least) or bust. No glass ceiling for her – she was going to smash through it with her rocketship.

The program had changed a lot since she had first looked into it. Every few years she’d read about astronauts or space and think of it as a loss love, or perhaps a lost dream. Now it was far less physically demanding and far more mental and emotional – and perhaps even spiritual. Now they didn’t have to endure many G-Forces, being spun about in centrifuges to ensure they could survive the ordeal of acceleration and reentry. No, being an astronaut was a lot easier since the invention of the Hop. Just strap the Hop onto your wrist, set the dials, and away you went. Within a matter of the blink of an eye you were there instead of here. Scientist’s weren’t sure how it worked, but they’d said the same about prescription drugs for years and that never stopped them. All they knew was that they got the results they were looking for.

All she was looking for was a chance, so they gave it to her. Training now was about how to interact with aliens on other planets. Of course, they weren’t “aliens” while on their home planet. She was. She was the odd one out, the anomaly when she was there. She was the one who had to adapt well enough to observe them and be able to return home in one piece. You never knew what might happen. Just judging how earth people treated their alien visitors, she knew anything was possible, so it was important to be as nonthreatening as possible.

It wasn’t possible to assume that the environment would be hospitable. She’d have to wear a spacesuit to protect against air that wasn’t of the right balance of gases for human, or ultraviolet rays that were too harsh, or gravity that was too high or too low. The spaceship had to become the spacesuit – able to provide a protective shell around the person to make it possible to explore in safety.

The government had long ago given up the idea of a space program, so it was handled by other private investors. They were generally in the tourist trade or in real estate, looking for a place for humans to go when they got bored.

So now she was testing out the suit in New York City. It wasn’t New New York – that was in Proxima Centauri 4, of course. But she had to practice somewhere, and you couldn’t get more alien than a big city that was populated with all sorts of people. So she’d Hop to New York or Nashville, or Mumbai or Mongolia, walking around and trying to interact with people. Part of it was getting used to being stared at and not reacting.

The suits had built-in translators, thankfully, but that only went so far. She had to understand the meaning beneath the words – the true message that was being conveyed. That would prove to be the most useful trait of any astronaut, and that was the one skill that couldn’t be taught. But it was hard to test for too. You couldn’t just ask someone if they could get along with anyone. Of course they’d say yes. It had to be proven, time and again, through various experiments, like what she was doing now.

Long ago, the space program gave precedence to ex-military for their astronauts. These days, they discovered that ex-retail was the best way to go. Those people had to know how to be diplomatic at all times, and how to keep the peace without a weapon. Not true with military folk, who were used to solving problems with their weapons instead of their words. Peaceful coexistence was the goal – not colonizing. They learned long ago that it was best to work and live together with a variety of beings. Too much homogeneity led to stagnation, an endless loop that would spiral back in on itself eventually, strangling ideas.

Advertisements