It was 3 AM on a clear, crisp October morning in 1957 when Dad gently shook me awake and said simply, “It’s time.”
I was instantly alert, and dressing quickly, moved quietly through the house so as not to disturb Mom or my brother and sister, and met Dad in the kitchen of our home in Queens. He poured hot chocolate into matching thermoses, picked up yesterday’s New York Daily News with its stunning story, and we walked into the predawn darkness.
There was a baseball field just a block from the house, and we didn’t say a word till we stood in the middle of the outfield under a star-studded sky.
“Where will we find it, Dad?” I asked. “How will we know which one it is?”
It was Sputnik, the world’s first man-made moon which had been launched a few days earlier from a Russian cosmodrome. In those Cold War days with duck and cover drills in my elementary school, the notion of a Soviet satellite cruising overhead – and possibly bombing us – was at first terrifying. It dominated the news and triggered scary atomic bomb drills in public schools throughout the country.
It was frightening to everyone except Dad.
To him it was an opportunity one that was not tainted by the racism and discrimination which hung like a cloud over every other occupation in America. Dad said there will be a space race to the moon and the stars, and America will need every smart person it could find to conquer space before the Russians did. If you were good in math and the sciences, he said, the sky was literally the limit.
This was the year after he had “passed” the NY Bar exam on his 5th try. New York had a rule that only the top two blacks who passed the bar could be admitted to the bar. The third time he took the exam he “failed” with a score of 92 – though passage for whites was 65 – but he was 4th among the blacks who took the exam. But he persisted until he couldn’t be denied.
To Dad, space was an untainted field, an arena with no good ole boys blocking the gates. Space was the future for those who were prepared. So there we were in the pre-dawn hours, looking at a story in the Daily News about Sputnik which said it would be passing over NY sometime between 3:30 AM and 4 AM and look like a slow-moving star. And there was a picture of the sky over the Empire State Building with an arrow showing the projected path of this new thing in the sky.
We thought we saw it right about 3:30, though it was headed in the wrong direction. But then Dad said no, that’s a plane and before long we could hear the drone of the propellers as it came in for a landing at LaGuardia Airport. Dad killed the time by asking questions: what kinds of skills were needed to put a rocket with people into space? Who designs it? What kind of wind machine do you need to test the design? How big is it? What do you do for fuel? How do you carry something that burns, like oil, and oxygen without blowing yourself up? Who makes that, a chemist or a pharmacist?
Whenever Dad wanted to me to consider something he’d start with a train of questions, each intended to lead my eight-year-old brain through a logical train till I was able to draw and support a conclusion. In this case, he wanted me to see possibilities in something that didn’t exist outside the pages of Analog, the science fiction magazine.
And then, suddenly, Dad pointed and said: “isn’t that one moving?”
And I followed his arm to a spot low on the horizon and there, in a cluster of stars, one was out of place. It was moving. There was no drone from an engine, no blinking landing lights. Just a slow moving star crossing the Fonda Avenue neighborhood ballfield where a black man and his son stood transfixed at this glimpse of the future till it disappeared on its solitary journey around the globe.
Then we dove into Dad’s question game during the short walk back home. What would it cost and who could keep track of the money and all the parts? Would they need accountants like Mom? Wouldn’t they have to allow black accountants? Dad thought they would – that space was a new frontier and jim crow wasn’t invited.
I wanted to continue but Dad insisted I get a couple of hours sleep before school. I headed towards the stairs and then stopped, turned and said “Dad, I’m going to be a rocket scientist.”
Sleep was impossible, of course. The excitement of stepping into a whole new world, and getting in on the ground floor where you make the rules as you go along had my brain ablaze with possibilities and the determination to succeed. It was still with me a decade later in the aeronautical engineering program at the University of Michigan. But there I was introduced to journalism, and found I liked writing about the impact of technological development on society more than making that technology.
So the notion of being a rocket scientist was shelved. But the feeling of excitement from that October morning was reawakened when I covered the first Space Shuttle flight from NASA headquarters in Houston. And during a lull in the activities, I called Dad to reminisce. And then the memory of that special morning on the baseball field went back on the shelf, and I went on to spend 50 years in journalism.
And on the shelf it remained. Until this week.
I watched, transfixed, as the booster engines from Falcon Heavy separated and made their precision turn and choreographed double landing at the Cape. 60 years dropped away and I was again that eight-year-old under a long-gone sky watching the future slowly open across the predawn darkness. I was again looking at the limitless possibilities opening up with space travel through the limitless heavens.
And I realized I was crying, and wishing Dad was alive to see this with me.