I thought it would be a good idea to take a bit of a break from all the blood and guts, apparently some of you are starting to get a bit squeamish.Today instead, I’m going to tell you why I’m not an astronaut.
You see, advertising Art Director & Animator was never my first calling. Not by a long chalk. Born in 1960, I belong to to a relatively exclusive generational sub-genre – Generation Jones. We used to be carelessly tossed in with the post-war Baby Boomers, until identified us Jones’s as a discrete group born in the decade between 1954 and 1965.
The name has several connotations, including a “keeping up with the Joneses” materialistic competitiveness and the slang word “jonesing”, meaning a yearning or craving. It is said that Jonesers were given huge expectations as children in the 1960s, and then confronted with a very different reality as they came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving them with a certain unrequited, jonesing quality.*
The huge expectation that I derived from growing up in the ’60s, was that it was my indisputable birthright to become a spaceman. This might seem unlikely now, fifty years later, but in the decade after my birth science was king. We were at the height of the Cold War, and technological hubris knew no bounds. This was the age of pocket-calculators, transistor radios, Valium, Thalidomide and that sartorial Everest, the drip-dry, stay-pressed nylon shirt. We were promised that – providing the damned Ruskies didn’t vaporize us first in a fit of pique because we had all the Levi’s and they had all the cabbage – that science would solve all our problems, and it was only a matter of a year or two before we all had our own flying cars and personal robot house-servents.
Always a solitary kid, unimpressed by either football or girls, I withdrew to my bedroom and immersed myself in my extensive library of science fiction paperbacks and “Astounding Tales” monthlies. Space travel was the new big thing. The Free West (well, OK, the Americans) were engaged in a thrilling battle for cosmic supremacy with the Ruskies. Lyndon Johnson had famously announced “I’ll be damned if I’ll sleep under a Red Moon,” the space-race was on, and money was no object.
At the very pinnacle of this hastily constructed pyramid of political bravura and technical arrogance, stood the astronaut. These days, where space-travel has become prosaic and mundane, it’s hard to appreciate the reverence in which this élite group of two dozen carefully picked men were held. They were pioneers and explorers. They were modern gladiators – cold-war warriors. Hell, they were practically gods. Women, and impressionable young boys like myself prostrated ourselves at their silver-booted feet.
Now here was a career I could aspire to.
There was just a couple of flaws in my scheme. Firstly, I didn’t live in Florida but a sleepy little Devonshire seaside resort called Paignton. While the American and Soviet space programs were just hitting their straps at this time, the British one was – like me – still in short trousers. Never mind building rockets, we were still congratulating ourselves on having inventing radar and the Routmaster Bus. It’s was clear that if I was going to fly the flag for the motherland, I was in for a very long wait. No problem, I reasoned. I’ll just go to America. I’m completely qualified – I know the names of all the planets (in order) – I can recite Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from memory, and I own my own . I’m practically a shoe-in for a shot at the Moon, or possibly even Mars.
The second snag – tactfully pointed out by my dad – was that at that time, the astronaut corp was exclusively picked from the ranks of the Air-Force and Navy’s elite test pilots. And here’s where my brilliant plan came crashing to the ground. By 1968 both my brother and I had been diagnosed with a rare hereditary eye-condition that had left us with extremely poor vision, which was only going to get worse. We were told that among other things, we would never be able to drive a car. And therefore, I quickly extrapolated, a T-38 high-performance NASA jet, an essential stepping stone towards me taking my rightful place behind the controls of an Apollo spacecraft.
I was completely crushed.
I entered a long period of mourning, during which I retreated to my bedroom. I took sanctuary in my books, and wads of press-releases, flight-plans and glossy 10×8 photos that I had been sent by a nice lady at the NASA Public Relations Office, along with my astronaut candidate rejection letter. In the cramped space under my bed, where most boys my age kept their stash of football magazines and pornography, I constructed a space capsule interior from supermarket cardboard, baking-foil and switches and dials liberated from an old radio.
That summer I spent weeks lying on my back in the stuffy semi-darkness, studying my flight-plan with a torch, and practicing flying my ship to the moon and back. I perfected launch procedures – during which I would be shaken vigorously by the rockets powerful engines – the delicate precision ballet of docking and unlocking maneuvers, and of course the all important and thrilling lunar landing. Communication with Mission Control in Houston was patchy, presumably due to the vast distances involved, and due to the limitations of my home-made equipment, I had to remember to add the all-important “beep”at the end of each sentence myself. Once safely on the surface I was then free to extricate myself from my cramped cabin, and bounce around on the swirling green and purple Axminster in the one-sixth gravity environment of my bedroom.
I dreamed of fling in space for many years after that summer. I still do for that matter. But growing up is all about learning to deal with crushing disappointment isn’t it? Like many of us Joneses the idealism and hope of the 60′s were to be rudely replaced by the gritty reality of the 1970′s. The moon program was canceled so that the congressional dollars could be diverted into the Vietnam war. Closer to home, Britain was wracked by industrial action and social unrest. My teenage years were punctuated by an endless cycle of strikes, water shortages and power-cuts. The evening news was dominated by trade disputes and senseless sectarian killings in Ulster. The pristine white and metallic silver of Stanly Kubrik and those glistening NASA years had been replaced by a brown and burnt-orange corduroy dirge.
The dream was over.