The XX Factor

The End of an Endeavour

On our morning school run, I generally call the kids’ attention to any news I think will interest them. Today, it was the final launch of the Endeavour, and instead of the mild attention these things usually generate, my two oldest kids sat straight up in their seats.* The last space shuttle flight? What did I mean? How could there be a last flight?

I had rocked their worldview. They had questions, and I didn’t have answers. How would astronauts get to and from the International Space Station now? (I had to look this up to tell them later-the Russian Soyuz spacecrafts.) Why would we end the space shuttle program? Did this mean no more astronauts would go into space? Would NASA end? And-this after my feeble explanations, my offering of other countries and their space missions, the even less inspiring suggestion of for-profit space exploration , and the news that NASA would now focus on “satellites and probes and stuff like that”-Does this mean the United States will never send a manned vehicle into space again ?

The school is going to be really annoyed at me for nearly reducing my fourth grader to tears right before the annual standardized tests, because all I could say was that I didn’t know for sure. My daughter sat silent, absorbing. Sam pressed me for odds as his entire vision of the space program collapsed around him. Was it more likely, or less likely, that we would return to space? What did I think? Did anyone know?

I’ve learned how to talk to my kids about a lot of things lately. Earthquakes, tsunamis, Osama Bin Laden, justice, murder, death. But how do you handle the death of a dream? I’d forgotten Sam’s plan to pilot the space shuttle when not helping to run the future family candy shop. On the radio, no one was talking about what’s next for NASA, and of course I didn’t look it up before we left the house this morning. I told Sam what adults know, that manned space programs have come and gone in the past, that technology changes, that having been to space before, I did think NASA will help astronauts to fly again. That we’d look it up after school.

He stumbled off, unsatisfied, and I hope he found a better-informed adult who could tell him that NASA plans to return to the moon and increase efforts to explore Mars . I hope he found someone whose morning outlook hadn’t been colored by news of controlled flooding and high-profile accused rapists. I hope he found a fellow space dreamer who knew a lot more than I did. And I think maybe for the next few school runs, I should consider finding some music.

Photograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Correction, May 16, 2011: This post originally misspelled the name of the space shuttle.