Interstellar and escaping a rock

When I was 16, I met Ellison Onizuka – a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle, Challenger.

He and two other crew members were on a goodwill tour throughout the Pacific Rim and they stopped at Father Duenas Memorial School when I was in my junior year. They spoke to the upperclassmen about college, military academies and of course – heading into space.

On the morning the news came in, I turned the radio on in my room and every station was carrying the same story. The Challenger had exploded after liftoff, the crew was feared dead.

When we got to school that morning, we literally got nothing done. The understanding of what just happened was going to be allowed to run it’s course. We were “Duenas men” – we could handle this.

That day, time stopped. We barely spoke.

All of us who were readying for college admissions and selecting schools were more than a little shocked that the men we had just met were all dead. In particular, Ellison, a man who had been born and raised just like us – on an island. But people at least know about Hawaii – there was a time when people would consistently ask or joke ‘Guam?’ It wasn’t a place; it was a question. “It’s a rock.”

As much as we loved our island, there wasn’t a soul in that class who didn’t aspire to leave it at some point and seek their fortune. Father Duenas, after all, was a college preparatory school and its mission was – pardon the phrase – to launch us into our careers, lives and more.

Seeing someone like Ellison suffer such a terrible end, so publicly, so completely gone – you think it would have made us all feel afraid, that the world was an island and daring to leave it had a cost.

But the effects were different in the long run. I know that many of us went on to be pilots, businessmen, soldiers, lawyers, architects, engineers and myself – an animator (bare with me). We ended up in quite diverse fields, the 100 or so of us that met with Ellison and the other crew.

If you would fast forward to 28 or so years later, I’m sitting in a nearly empty theater watching a movie thinking about how people rationalize one thing or another – is it worth it, should we be spending money on something else, the internalization of how big our problems are and how wasteful something like space travel is when our roads need paving and our bridges need mending.

But all those bridges and roads lead to somewhere where once there was no building, no job to go to, not even a place to park your car. It’s really easy to cut exploration when you think you’ve been everywhere and seen everything. There’s nothing in outer space, right? Why go?.

It made everything more expensive – traveling, goods an services, communications and therefore the internet. It made everything more complicated, building, travelling and even watching movies. You were sometimes never sure whether or not a movie you heard about would ever have a chance of playing because the possible audience for it was so small.

It was a different set of movies that inspired me to leave Guam. They were in order that I saw them, Toy Story and The Shawshank Redemption. You can say they are as completely unrelated as humanly possible but look at the themes and popular phrases that emerged from them both – “To infinity and beyond” and “Get busy living, or get busy dying” and watching them in quick succession turned into my refrain for planning my departure.

I say planning, but I think I caught some people off guard. Particularly the people I knew who were more than happy living the rest of their lives there. Why leave?

Why? Why did I listen to a man who said “nothing is impossible” when months later he’d be dead. Why believe him. He failed? Why leave an island that you know, that sustains you, that gave you everything?

Because I got sick of being isolated. Afraid of never dipping my oar into chance, to be more poetic, and being happy about it. People visit the island and call it paradise but I promise you that the ocean surrounding it has swallowed more wishes, dreams and lives than space ever has. I simultaneously respect, love, and fear the ocean. But it was a barrier to everything I wanted in many ways.

You know what scares some people? It’s not dying in space. It’s drowning in an ocean because they never learned  to swim. My sister has been teaching grown men and women to swim – adults who have been putting it off because they never had the time, felt ashamed, or just didn’t know it was even a choice. It’s a bit of a stretch, but as a metaphor for why we should learn out way about space it’s a decent one.

If it sounds like I may have disliked “Interstellar”, nothing could be further from the truth. But I was caught off guard by the people who hated it so much for any reason we reach for when hating a big budget, sometimes sentimental and serious look at science fiction. I loved the movie. If, for no other reason, than I had actually met someone who faced the real terrors and rigors of space travel and perished.

I repeat this phrase from an editor’s speech on stories a lot. Stories have such common themes on this planet that there must be a deeper reason and one of his comments was that many of our stories are our way of rehearsing our fears. It’s a petty criticism of any movie, a dismissive audience that walks away and comments merely “that sucked,” snaps a bunch of selfies then gets drunk and boards a plane. What is there to fear any longer for humans?

We need the sheer terror of space. We need that inky, cold, deadly black oblivion stare to motivate us and fucking dare us to leave. ust like I needed to look across an ocean when I had barely graduated from college and say I am leaving, I think the human race owes itself some new stories. New terrifying and crushing terror from the reaches of space.

After just a few generations, the human race has become pretty skilled at flying itself around the planet. We take it so for granted that you can’t go too many weeks without hearing about loud, drunk morons making even short trips a complaint filled torture. Flying went from exploration, to utility and recreation pretty fast, but space travel gives another challenge.

I can’t quite imagine I’ll be making spaceflights soon but I applaud the courage of people trying to pave the way. It’s funny to think that if we ever get REALLY good at travelling across space, people might complain of how big our other problems are and how wasteful something else is when our spaceport driveways need paving and our wormhole bridges need mending.

And some part of me will think that early space travelers don’t really want to advance the species or save it, they just want to get away from all the complaining.


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