Sidebar: Along for the Launch
As Leroy, Salizhan, and Yuri walk from the crew bus to their spacecraft, we stand nearby, close enough to see Leroy grin through his bubble-faced helmet. The morning is black and cold, and the rocket is lit up like a tower in a prison yard. We watch them climb the ladder up to a platform at the rocket's side, as if they are going over the wall. We are left behind, intoxicated by the privilege of being here and a little envious of their imminent kick-in-the-pants ride, the stomach jolt of weightlessness, and their god’s-eye view of Earth.
I met Leroy Chiao a few years ago, the day I moved into a house across the runway from his in an airpark near Houston. He and a friend came by to welcome me to the neighborhood. He was already slotted for a mission to command the space station and had spent a lot of time training in Russia. It was wonderful there, he said, and he loved the people.
I asked him about survival training in the snowy wilderness. “It's not really wilderness,” he said. “The instructors were in a nearby motel, drinking vodka and talking to us on the radio. Everybody drinks vodka over there.”
Well, I hate vodka, but when we finished the beer at my house, we walked across the runway for vodka shots at his house. Most of us in the airpark have airplanes, so the usual barriers to friendship slide away like hangar doors opening. We fly together, and when a neighbor launches into space, we come to watch.
When the rocket lifts, I snap pictures and cry, but not because I'm scared that they won't come back. I am simply overwhelmed by the bravery of leaving behind fresh air, open doors, and the freedom to change their minds.
The rocket climbs, then disappears, leaving behind a C-shape cloud. We dub it the Chiao cloud and climb back on our bus to celebrate with vodka shots and hearty cheers.