Moscow, January 1, 1959 (AP)—The Soviet space program is preparing to fire a multi-stage rocket, named Lunik, toward the moon tomorrow. In a leaked release obtained late Wednesday, final preparations are said to be progressing according to schedule and the launch is planned for 4:30 pm from Baikonur.
All this fuss, all this preparation, all this hope swells me into a silver balloon of promise. I’m surrounded by parents—creators—and well-wishers, fretting and checking and making last minute reminders. The time they’ve longed for and feared is almost here.
“One last thing—”
“Make sure she has—”
“Oh, don’t forget—”
They’ve made the air electric with anxiety.
After most others have gone, Korolev remains. He places his hand on me, like a father resting a hand on a graduate’s shoulder. “Lunik,” he says, “tomorrow is a big day. But you are ready.”
His words calm me. I only have one direction to go. I only have infinity before me.
Cape Canaveral, January 28, 1986 (New York Times)—The space shuttle Challenger exploded in a ball of fire shortly after it left the launching pad today. All seven astronauts on board were lost.
Some efforts result in unvarnished tragedy. Some result in disappointment. Maybe only time can distinguish the two.
I know I’m a mere disappointment. My agony is in the second-guessing. Should I have taken a little more time that last day? Checked the numbers again? Had a little less moxie, a little more caution? When I left, I didn’t look back long enough. Perhaps. Or maybe I looked back too long.
In true tragedies, like today—when things go horribly, wrenchingly, fatally wrong—it’s all looking back. It’s nothing but second, third, fourth guesses and beyond. Perhaps it’s all anyone can do at that point. Try to find the lesson, try to learn from the mistake.
The scrutiny gets weakened at lesser degrees. Take the bad with the good. Do better next time. Unless there won’t be a next time and then…
Houston, July 20, 1969 (New York Times)—Men have landed and walked on the moon. Two Americans, astronauts of Apollo 11, steered their fragile four-legged lunar module safely and smoothly to the historic landing at 4:17 pm, Eastern Daylight Time.
What distinguishes dreams and goals? I think of dreams simply as unspecified goals, broad and ill-defined but made of the slippery stuff that inspires action and attempt. No goal is achieved independent of the dream that made it seem possible.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy for others’ accomplishments. The giants upon whose shoulders others stand must look up into the kilts of their domineers and scoff at the spoiled view.
Not that I’m a giant. More of a footnote, perhaps.
I dreamed of the moon. When others long for the same dream, when someone else achieves what you could not, do you greet them as a friend? “Congratulations, then! You’ve succeeded where I failed.” If so, the words are aspirin melting on the back of a parched tongue. Sticky, bitter, and choking. And all around, the cold. The loneliness. The one moment, over and over.
If I only had it back, the one triumphant step might have been mine.
Moscow, January 2, 1959 (AP)—The Soviet Union released an announcement that it successfully launched the rocket Lunik to the moon this afternoon. The nose cone carries the Soviet flag, the announcement said, and in addition to many instruments the rocket carries special equipment designed to create the sodium cloud of an artificial comet. This is to permit it to be observed and photographed.
Everyone sets out with such promise. I saw my family recede behind me, growing smaller as I left, happy and terrified and strong and so uncertain. Even stoic Korolev waved, maybe wiping an eye.
Hope is rocket fuel, lifting us, soaring and giddy beyond everything we’ve ever known. Confidence becomes ignition: we’ll recover from any mistakes. We’ll make it where we’re going. Guaranteed.
Moscow, January 4, 1959 (New York Times)—The radio transmitting system of the Soviet cosmic rocket Lunik went dead today. This development was announced in the day’s only communiqué about the flight of the one-and-a-half-ton vehicle, which has broken away from earth’s gravity and streaked past the moon toward an orbit around the sun.
How wide is the margin of success versus failure? For me, as wide as an ocean. Perhaps, considering where I came from, that might be some measure of comfort. But compared to where I was going, it might as well have been a centimeter; the distance between a breath of air and the sky.
I pass by my dream, the serene silver of achievement slipping by, and I can’t even cry out. I only watch and try not to think of the defeat behind me.
Oh, they’ll all tell themselves I did my best. In public they’ll put on the proud face, and talk of the minor accomplishments along the road to eventual disaster. They’ll talk about perspective. “In the grand scheme of things, not so bad.”
But the grand scheme of things reaches out, and I never feel its touch. In the small dream of things, I am a failure. All I’ve ever wanted passes by. Once, and then forever out of reach.
Cape Canaveral, February 1, 2003 (The Miami Herald)—Space shuttle Columbia, carrying a cross-section of America’s human treasure and the first Israeli astronaut, disintegrated in flames over Texas. All seven astronauts died.
I’ve gotten older. Found and settled into my place. Today I think about the almost. The so close but not quite there. How often do we cheer the record that would have broken, if not for the stumble at the finish? Do we ever acknowledge the maddening discovery that couldn’t quite be found?
Effort is everywhere. Only in success do we bother with recognition.
Those who might have noticed me—if I hadn’t failed in the final act—have moved on. Quiet disappointment renders one transparent, slides you out of memory. Massive triumph or catastrophic failure is all the binary world seems to notice.
Lately, my years are long. I’ve settled into my groove, perfected my route. Counting time as it moves from a thing to race to a thing to wait out. I orbit the center constant, occasionally marking my failure with an anniversary and then back to the grind. Round and round and round. No sense being bitter.
Things could always be worse.
London, September 14, 1959 (The Sydney Morning Herald)—Budapest observatory today reported having seen a small black circle on top of the moon at the time the Russian rocket—Lunik II—landed.
Dreams are transferrable. If you don’t achieve yours, someone else will snatch them from you, grapple them away. While I scarcely had time to process my errors, my sister swept in behind and performed a feat of thievery.
But who can blame the victors?
Every triumph costs someone else’s defeat. How easy it is to overlook the backs that pave the roads to success.
How difficult to maintain grace with a boot heel on your spine.
I dreamed of the moon. I aimed and missed. Behind me, others picked up my wish, dusted it off, built it up. They forged it into something new, something spiraling further toward heaven. Some paid dearly, far more so than I. Some kicked their way into history.
Quietly I fade away, watching my dreams rebuilt, watching new dreams blow apart. I watch. I wait.
Deep in the night I slide through the dark, and I whisper to the stars.
—Paul A. Hamilton is a writer and technology worker living in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. His stories feature broken people, reassembled worlds, beautiful monsters, and hideous love. He gets his inspiration by impersonating an old-timey bartender, listening to stories told by lonely strangers. When not writing, he can be found reading, drawing, taking photographs, or riding roller coasters. More from him can be found at http://ironsoap.com/ and on Twitter as @ironsoap.