Brakes—Hold. Fuel selector—Both tanks. Mixture—Full rich. Carburetor heat—Off. Circuit breakers—In. Primer—Three pumps. Throttle—Open quarter-inch. Battery master/alternator switch—On. Beacon—On. Propeller area—"Clear!" Ignition—Start.
As I finished the checklist and turned the key, Freddy's engine roared to life and I smiled as I got ready to begin my takeoff. My destination, six flights over three days away, is Houston. I am flying to Houston because when I was five years old, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Ackley, told the class that before we could go outside for recess each of us had to whisper in her ear what we wanted to be when we grew up.
"Astronaut," I said, then ran out to the swings.
Junior year of high school: The concert band (I played the trumpet) took a trip to Washington, D.C. We got to tour some museums, and I chose the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where they were showing an Imax movie called Destiny In Space. I walked out a different person.
I remembered Mrs. Ackley that day.
A commercial flight would have gotten me to Houston faster, cheaper, and on time. But it seemed less in the spirit of the thing. A few months earlier, I had submitted my astronaut application to NASA along with 18,300 others. NASA will take only eight to fourteen of us. It was spring break at Berkshire School in western Massachusetts, where I work as a physics and astronomy teacher, so this might be my only chance to visit while my application is processing. If I'm going to visit NASA only once, I want it to be an adventure.
My whole life—I'm thirty-nine now—I've lived in pursuit of becoming an astronaut. I have a degree in aerospace engineering and have been a sailing, backpacking, and canoeing instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) for a decade. I spent two seasons as an antenna rigger and two seasons as an alternative-energy specialist in Antarctica, which is about as close as you can get to space on dry land.
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