| This is the 144th story of Our Life Logs |
At night I am always looking up towards the stars when I sit outside no matter where I am. It’s my habit by default and one that formed when I was a child. I dreamed of escaping into the stars and getting away from my small town. I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. Today whenever I am outside at night, my gaze moves toward the heavens, and I remember the dreams I once had, the life choices that never came to pass, detours I never wanted to take but a destination that more than made up for the dreams I lost along the way. That little boy looking up to the sky for an escape would be proud.
I grew up in a tense household in Louisiana where my parents fought all the time. Their yelling could be heard three streets over. By the time I was ten, I had a deep desire to get away from my home. I loved my family but living with them made me feel that my dreams were limited, and I would never be able to escape my small town. The thought of escaping gave me respite from whatever dysfunctional event was happening between my mom and dad.
I made my own path, charting the constellations in my backyard. I escaped my decayed family life every night by watching the moon wax and wane. In 1969, at ten years old, I was inspired to write a letter to NASA. I told them I wanted to be an astronaut and walk on the moon, just like Neil Armstrong did in July of that year. NASA replied with what I am sure was their standard template letter, but back then I didn’t realize that. They told me to get a good education, finish college with good grades, and come to see them when I graduate college.
The desire to escape continued to linger as I grew up. Each time I played outside with friends at night, played football under those Friday night lights, or drove a date home after a dance, I looked up at the stars and knew I wanted more. I wanted to escape Earth altogether. I wanted to walk on the moon.
Just by receiving that letter from NASA, I felt that my dream of becoming an astronaut was a real possibility. It wasn’t going to be something to just fantasize about anymore. I went to a job fair toward the end of college at Louisiana State University and to my great excitement, got hired by NASA before officially graduating.
In 1979 after graduating college at 22 years old, I packed everything I had, which only amounted to two suitcases, got in my car, and drove to Houston. I didn’t even have a place to live yet or know anyone, but I was one step closer to getting to the stars and living my dream of becoming an astronaut, so I didn’t care to stress over the details.
But life sometimes must bring us a harsh dose of reality. I had achieved my dream of getting a job with NASA and became a rocket engineer after getting a master’s degree in business in 1985. But I had not become an astronaut yet because there were no open slots. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I had the chance to apply for the astronaut class and failed. However, I didn’t lose hope that I’d get in one day. I remained dedicated to the space mission and worked at the Johnson Space Center.
In 1989, I got married; we started our family and had two sons. Sadly, my marriage only lasted 10 years before it ended after she left me for another man in 1999.
I started to feel sorry for myself. The dream quest I had envisioned for myself wasn’t happening. It appeared that it was never going to happen. I was divorced, had two small children who needed me, a job I didn’t know if I wanted anymore, and I was terrified to try dating again at 43. It all felt like too much.
My epiphany moment came in the year 2000, on a night I drank way too many beers. I looked up at the night sky that once held all my dreams that never came true and wanted to scream and shake my fist at its empty promises and false hope. But then, I started to think about all that I had in life which I never dreamed I could obtain. I might not have fulfilled my original desires, but I had achieved something almost as good as my old dreams. I was working for NASA and I was studying the stars; only it was from earth instead of space like I had hoped.
I had forgotten why the stars meant so much to me. They were an escape, and I allowed them to embrace me once again. I allowed myself to move on and remarried in 2003 and pieced my life back together, being happy with what I had instead of what I lacked.
Since my retirement in 2016, I’ve been looking back and remembering the boy I used to be, the young man who started a job at NASA believing that risks and space travel were always controllable. But they’re not. There were definitely dark times during the 38 years I worked for the space program.
In 1986, I was placed on a search and rescue team for the Challenger, though it was clear that no one would live, and no rescuing would be done, only recovery. After the tragedy, I felt we at NASA had failed them, so I helped create the knowledge management data resources so that future astronauts and the world at large would know, a tragedy like this would not happen again.
Years later in 2003, I watched the Columbia fall from the sky. Those brave souls who perished were my coworkers and friends. While the Columbia didn’t fail for the same reasons that the Challenger did, I realized that we all failed again. We didn’t pay attention to the data research I had helped create, accumulate and share. It was a tough time, but we learned to be better for the future.
As an experienced rocket engineer today, I’ve learned a lot from all the tragedies and near misses. I realized that it isn’t just the astronauts at NASA that are risking everything. It’s also the men and women behind every space mission, working insane hours to find new ways to improve the space capsule, the space suit, the computers, even the food for astronauts. They are the quiet heroes, working behind the scenes of every flight. Their achievements may not be in the news, but they make a huge difference in the missions. Everyone in the station is working to create a new portal for human life to continue if this world gives out.
I am sixty now and finally realize that although I may not have ended up on the path I had charted and drawn out for years, the path I did end up on was just as magical. The little boy who dreamed of escaping through the stars may not have physically left, but he has explored the depths of many worlds from behind the scenes. I tell my wife and family to look at the stars and envision quiet heroes, no matter what their profession is, dedicated to making this world a safer place or a future world in space a reality. Isn’t that a life well lived?
Next time you go out at night and get a chance to look up at the stars, think about how you can make this world a better place for all mankind and watch one of those stars wink back at you. That’s the universe letting you know–you do make a difference.
This is the story of Brad Peterson
Brad has recently retired after 38 years of service working manned space flight missions in Houston, Texas. Brad grew up with a desire to escape to the stars away from his dysfunctional home, a dream he pursued until he realized what he had been chasing was able to be reached from Earth. Today, he lives a quiet life with his wife, Samantha. Together, they raised their children from previous marriages and helped them become happy, successful, well-adjusted adults (most of the time). Though he never became an astronaut, he was still able to find comfort and an escape through his work at the Johnson Space Center.
This story first touched our hearts on August 15, 2018.