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By Jeff Lefler
AuthorHouse LLCCopyright © 2014 Jeff Lefler
All rights reserved.
It's been thirty-five years since I have seen or spoken to anyone—back when I was only twenty-two years old. Since then, I've had the best times of my life and the worst times of my life—all while alone. But there's not much time left now. In just a few weeks, I'll finally be there.
There are some who say it's the journey, not the destination. But for me, it's the journey and the destination. How did I get here? That's the reason I am writing this. It's been thirty-five years, and I have just realized, just now, that after all I have been through, after all I am going to go through, I need to tell people my story! After all, this has been the greatest journey anyone has ever made. This is like our first trip to space or our first steps on the moon but much, much more important! This will affect human life forever! This will be in the history books. People will want to know how it all began and what happened along the way.
There are a lot of things that got me here—many people, conversations, discoveries, and events that, all put together, put me on the path to where I am. They are the reason I am here. This didn't start just thirty-five years ago; it started much earlier than that.
There may be things I'll write about that you don't think are important. But they were important to me; they are important to me. There are definitely accomplishments and regrets. I've had a long time to reflect on those things. If ever anyone had time to really think about their life, really reflect on what is important to them, what they are proud of and what they would change, it is me.
I can't tell you about everything—there is so much to write about and so little time. But I'll do my best.
So here it goes—here's my story.
Since I was a young boy, I loved to hear my father tell me the story of my grandfather's launch of the space shuttle Apollo. Yeah, my grandfather was there. I guess maybe it was my grandfather who started all of this—my love and passion for space, for discovery; my need to know what is out there beyond Earth, beyond our solar system, beyond our galaxy. Maybe if he hadn't been so passionate about space exploration, my father wouldn't be. And if my father wasn't so passionate about space exploration, maybe I wouldn't be either.
On one of many nights when I was a young boy, my father looked at a picture on the ledge just above my bed. I caught him looking, and so, just as excitedly as I usually did, I asked him to tell me—again—the story of the Apollo shuttle launch. He smiled as he looked down at me; he had known it was coming. He took the picture from the ledge above my bed and pointed to his father surrounded by engineers and the shuttle crew with Apollo and the launch site in the background ...
"This was the day I was born," David told Moriah. "Back then, no one had been to the moon. We only looked upon it. For so long, it seemed so far away. Space was something that no one had really seen before. Not like we see it now, anyway. It was out there, and we could gaze upon it, but to go there—to go there was a different story.
"At the time, there was a race to the moon going on. We wanted to have people walk on the moon by the end of the decade—before 1970. For years it was our major focus. There were many preparations and things that had to be done. Many, many people put in endless hours to achieve this goal. And your grandfather—he was one of those people.
"After years and years of preparation, the time finally came to send people on a shuttle and have them land on the moon. It would be the ultimate discovery of our time!
"Grandpa told me that everyone was nervous and excited, as you can imagine. Everyone in the world was watching. Everyone wanted to know if we could make it and what we would find. The night before the launch, Grandpa could barely sleep. He just tossed and turned all night. It was better than Christmas, he would say. When morning finally came, Grandpa got up really early to go and make sure everything was ready for the launch. They had all sorts of tests to do. They had to get the pilots in their suits. They had to check all the computers and make sure everything was ready to go. Your grandpa was in charge, so he checked everything again and again. They couldn't afford for anything to go wrong. Everything had to be perfect. He had a lot of people helping him test everything and make sure everything was working properly.
"After hours of test after test and check after check, when everyone was finally ready, Grandpa said they could start the clock countdown to takeoff. Can you imagine, Moriah, what it would feel like to be the one who got to give the orders to start the countdown! Even to be there as the clock counted down—ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two one ... and then blastoff. When Apollo started to take off, Grandpa said you could feel the ground rumble." David patted the bed to create a rumbling vibration for Moriah just as his father always had done when he told the story to David. It was something Moriah had grown to expect during the story—and he giggled and perked up in excitement whenever his father did it.
"They sat in the big computer room, and everyone watched the ship take off," Moriah's father continued. "Someone said, 'We have liftoff.' Then, when the shuttle reached outer space, everyone began to clap, cheer, and hug each other. They did it, Moriah. They launched the ship—Grandpa launched the ship. And then it eventually made it to the moon and became the biggest space discovery of its time. Grandpa, and others, had dreamed of someday reaching the moon. And now ... now they had finally done it."
"That's my favorite part," Moriah jumped in. He showed his father a picture he had drawn. The spaceship was in the background, ready for flight. Below the launch site were the astronauts in their flight suits. Around them were all the people who helped with the launch and, in the center, Grandpa with Grandma holding a baby in her arms.
David looked at the picture and smiled. He put it on the ledge with the other picture and tucked Moriah into bed. He stroked Moriah's forehead, gave him a hug, and then kissed his cheek. "I'm so proud of you," he whispered in Moriah's ear. He turned off the light, left the room, and closed the door, leaving it open just a crack.
I'll never forget what happened that day. It was the day my father was born. It was the day we first launched to the moon: July 20, 1969. That day meant everything. My dad told me that story hundreds of times. He never got tired of telling it, and I never got tired of hearing it. Every time he told me the story, it was as if I was right there with my grandfather, counting down to blastoff. Now you see where I get my love of space. It started with my grandfather. He loved space, my father loves space, and I love space. Ever since I can remember, that's all I wanted to do—just learn about space. I wanted to learn everything there was to know. I wanted to see everything there was to see. When other kids wanted to go to baseball games, ride bikes, or play video games, I just wanted to go look at the stars and planets with my dad. I could look at them again and again, always hoping to learn something new or see a little further or more clearly. We were lucky to live where we did. Often, my dad would take me just out of town to look at the stars and planets ...
It was darker out here than in the city. Moriah loved getting far enough from the city lights that you could see the expanse of the stars clearly. Moriah enjoyed the ride with his dad to Angeles National Forest not far from their home in Pasadena. His dad had been bringing him here for quite a few years now—since even before he knew how to walk. They parked the car in the familiar spot and walked a short distance into the field where they had been so many times before. Moriah's father took the telescope out of the case and carefully set it up on the tripod. He looked to the sky and carefully positioned it, looking through it for a few moments as he made small adjustments, finally bringing it to rest at a certain point. His dad stepped away from the telescope, and Moriah moved into position to look through. He could see countless stars surrounding the planet his father had focused on. Moriah recognized it as Venus.
Venus wasn't hard to distinguish from the others—other than the moon, it was the brightest natural object in the sky. Venus was most bright shortly before sunrise and after sunset. That was the reason ancient cultures referred to Venus as the Morning and the Evening Star. Moriah knew everything about Venus—that it was an inferior planet from Earth, and so it never appeared to be far from the sun. It was very similar to the Earth in size and gravity, and it was the closest planet to Earth. That's why Venus was called Earth's sister planet. But Venus was way too hot to have people on it—it was the hottest planet in the solar system at over 800 degrees Fahrenheit. If it wasn't so hot, maybe humans could have tried to go there someday. Moriah enjoyed looking at the planet every time his father brought him here, despite the fact that he had seen it so often. After Moriah had spent a few minutes looking into the telescope, his father navigated it to other planets. At this time of the year, they could also see Mars and Saturn very clearly. Moriah was almost good enough to find the planets on his own, and sometimes he did, with a little help from his dad.
Within a few minutes of navigating, Moriah gazed upon Saturn through the lens of the telescope. He knew that the rings of Saturn were made of clumps of water ice, some dust, and other chemicals that orbit around the planet. He knew that there were many rings around Saturn, and that the farthest ones from the planet were hundreds of thousands of miles from the center of the planet. At age nine, he couldn't really understand how far this was, but he knew it was a lot farther than driving to Mount Rushmore—and that was very far.
He knew he needed a telescope to see that far away. The rings looked so small, but he knew they were so big.
"Dad," Moriah asked as he looked through the telescope, "what is after the planets in our solar system? How far does it go? What else is out there? Does the telescope show everything we can see? How does it stop? Is there a wall? Is it a bubble?"
David knew that the trips to Angeles National Forest with the telescope weren't going to satisfy Moriah anymore. For years he had been happy to look at the planets through the small telescope and learn about them. But now he had seen enough of the close stars and planets. Moriah understood our solar system, and he knew all there was to know about the planets in it. But now he was starting to ask some of the questions David and his coworkers asked themselves every day: "How far does it go? What else is out there?"
David looked at Moriah, proud of him for knowing so much about the planets and solar system we live in, but knowing that he needed more. "I think it's time that I took you to work with me, Moriah. There is a much larger telescope there. We can look at things farther away, and I can teach you more about what is out there. Tomorrow I am going to take you to the lab and show some of what we know is out there."
I remember how excited I was when my dad told me that. I couldn't sleep that night and could barely make it through school the next day. That was my first of many trips to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where my dad worked. I spent many hours over the next thirteen years at the lab. It was where I first met Merk and Sigourney, where I learned a lot of what I know now—and, of course, the last place I visited before leaving on this mission. I'll never forget that day. It all started when my dad picked me up early from school as planned. I was going to miss some school, but my dad and I thought about it more as a field trip. A field trip just for me ...
They drove through the streets of Pasadena until they arrived at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory where David worked. Moriah could see the many buildings that were all part of the laboratory. Most of them looked like normal buildings on the outside, but he knew they weren't normal at all. The laboratory was where they built robots to travel to other planets to investigate them and send information back to Earth. His father had talked about his workplace. He also talked a lot about Merk and Sigourney. Now Moriah would get to see it for himself.
David parked in his usual reserved spot close to the door. They entered the building and passed by the security desk. David signed a paper and got an official pass that he placed around Moriah's neck. Moriah felt like he was important and belonged there.
After turning down a few hallways and walking down a corridor, they approached a door that was locked. David motioned his key pass in front of the scanner, and the door opened to a large room where several people were looking at computers and talking. Moriah felt a little insecure but safe with his dad's arm around him.
They walked across part of the room and past some computers and gadgets that looked strange to Moriah. As they approached, two people turned around.
"Sigourney, Merk, I would like you to meet my son, Moriah."
"Hello, Moriah." Sigourney smiled warmly. "We have heard lots of great things about you from your dad. He says how smart you are and what a little scientist you are."
Moriah smiled back.
Merk had a white coat waiting for Moriah. "Here you go, Moriah. Since you're a real-life scientist now, you're going to need one of these lab coats." Moriah had only seen other people wear them before, but he had always known he wanted one. Moriah already liked being at work, and he really liked Sigourney and Merk. He wished he could just come to work every day and did not have to go to school.
Moriah felt good at the laboratory, like he belonged there. He looked around at all the computers and saw other people working. He saw a few other doors and wondered where they led.
"Well, Moriah," David asked, "do you want to go have a look through a really big telescope, a special telescope that looks really far?"
"But isn't it too light out, and aren't we too close to the city to see clearly, Dad?" Moriah said as he looked at his dad with a puzzled face.
David put his arm around him and replied, "This telescope is much different from the one you are used to. This telescope is far from the city lights. In fact, it's just above the Earth, outside of the atmosphere. It can see far into space. We can use it to take pictures of things really far away and transmit the pictures back to Earth. Let's go and look at some of the pictures the telescope has taken."
They made their way over to one of the computers on the other side of the room. David entered in a password and scrolled through some menus. He started to scroll through crystal-clear images of what Moriah thought were pictures made by an artist on a computer. They didn't look real, Moriah thought to himself as he gazed at them. There were images with swirls of beautiful colors mixed together. They looked like whirlwinds of reds, greens, purples, yellows—all colors. They looked like someone had drawn them to look so beautiful; it couldn't have happened by itself. Some of them looked like designs. There were images with thousands of stars. These looked much larger than Moriah had ever seen with his telescope.
"Are these pictures real, Dad?" Moriah asked with a quizzical face.
David responded yes and went on to explain what the images were. He showed an image full of stars and explained that there were millions of stars around us. David taught Moriah that just about the time he was born, in 1995, scientists discovered that not far from Earth, there were more stars similar to our sun and that they each had their own planets like Mars, Venus, and Saturn—the ones Moriah could see with his telescope. As David continued, he taught Moriah that these other planets were called extrasolar planets, or exoplanets.
"These are planets outside our solar system, Moriah. They are outside of the planets you are used to seeing. Ever since those first discoveries of these planets almost ten years ago, we have discovered more than a hundred planets like these. Scientists all around the world are finding more like these all the time."
Moriah looked up at his father, a little puzzled. He was a little overwhelmed by how many planets there were. Moriah had only ever seen the planets within their solar system he and his dad could see through their telescope—their small telescope.
Excerpted from The Message by Jeff Lefler. Copyright © 2014 Jeff Lefler. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
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