To Infinity and beyond

When I was five I was just alive…

Apollo 11 East Crater Panorama

When I was five I didn’t really think beyond the moment, except maybe to wonder what was for dinner or to fidget in class because we were doing something boring and I wanted to go outside and play. I don’t think I ever thought about what I would be when I grew up, although it is possible I wanted to be Thomas the Tank Engine. That didn’t work out.

When I was seven I wanted to be an astronaut. It was 1969 and the year of the moon landing. Excitement had been growing at school and at home; during the mission, as the rocket both approached and departed the moon, each night before bed I went to the door and waved goodnight to the astronauts. Then one glorious day at school our teacher brought out the television and we sat and watched a fuzzy picture of clumsy spacesuits bouncing about in slow motion – and they were really there, on the moon! It was incredible. Just as I had waved to them at bedtime, they could stand and wave back at the Earth. Wave back at me.

The following year the Apollo 13 mission played out in real time before our eyes. It wasn’t all Tom Hanks and confidence in a happy ending. We didn’t know the ending until it happened. My mother and grandma were distraught. At bedtime I didn’t just wave, I prayed, possibly for the first time in a meaningful way. That splashdown in the ocean was the answer, although whether to prayer or human ingenuity or both is up to you to decide.

After that I still wanted to go into space. A couple of years later I was still fascinated and I did my research, I watched Star Trek on television and read Hugh Walters. Before I finished primary school I had moved onto Philip K Dick and discovered that I needed to learn maths and physics to get into NASA. This was not a major obstacle; I liked maths and science, although I also liked history and French, and was pretty good at them.

Somehow in my teens it started to go wrong. I got too fat and unfit to think about astronauting. It turned out that while I was good at maths and physics I was better at languages and history. It turned out I actually loved them. Then it turned out I was better at thinking about why we should go into space than I was at actually going into space, so I studied philosophy and psychology at university. And then it turned out I was better at computers than those things too.

So in the end I worked in jobs that didn’t exist when I was five, or even ten, or actually barely fifteen. It turns out I am the citizen of a future only accessible through science fiction to the five-year-old-child-me. And it turns out I still think the most exciting thing to happen recently is not the London Olympics but the Curiosity mission to Mars.

The strangest thing is, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

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