For My Brother, It Was Rocket Science

His childhood dream of becoming an astronaut led him to launch rockets into space.

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Charles D. Watkins Jr.

The final space shuttle launch this week takes me back to a time when my brother Charles turned our attic into a spaceship where the neighborhood kids would play astronaut. The captain would sit at an old school desk, steering a course through the front window, a portal to outer space and endless adventure. The slanted walls were crammed with every solar system map, dial and gadget that could be ordered with cereal-box tops.

Charles was usually the commander on these flights of fantasy, and he ruled the cabin with the seriousness of Captain Kirk at the helm of the Starship Enterprise. As space cadets, we were expected to recline against the wall and distort our faces to simulate the effect of g-forces upon takeoff. Thereafter, we were generally expected to follow the captain's orders.

Those were the days before video games. The cabin of our attic spaceship was a treasure trove of playthings gained from promotions targeting kids. Kellogg's Pep cereal supplied us with Tom Corbett Space Cadet Goggles with special X-ray vision. TV's Captain Midnight provided Secret Squadron Decoder Badges that allowed us to send coded messages. Boys' Life magazine chipped in an assortment of military chevrons and badges that we used to designate rank. Ovaltine malted milk mix gave us deeds to 1-square-inch parcels of land in Alaska that we repurposed to represent real estate on the moon.  

The truth is, until President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech in 1961 promising to put a man on the moon, America's manned space program was pretty much a figment of the imaginations of kids and sci-fi-movie makers. Today the U.S. celebrates 50 years of manned space flight. And humans haven't only walked on the moon -- they have lived continuously at the International Space Station for the past 10 years.

The year after Kennedy made his speech, he recommended an Air Force test pilot, Capt. Edward Dwight, to be the first black candidate for astronaut training. But Dwight's ascension into space never materialized. He never got beamed up. 

It wasn't until 1967 that Jet magazine announced that Maj. Robert Lawrence of the Air Force had the right stuff to become an astronaut. Tragically, Lawrence was killed in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter jet during a training mission with a student pilot.

The first black man to actually make it into space was Arnaldo Méndez, a Cuban who took the trip aboard a Russian Soyuz in 1980. The U.S. was determined not to be outdone. NASA had three African-American astronauts ready to go: Col. Guion S. Bluford, Col. Frederick D. Gregory and scientist Ronald E. McNair

Bluford was the first African American to go where none had gone before -- into outer space. As a youngster, he built model airplanes much as my brother did. Mostly, my brother assembled cool plastic fighter jets with swept-back wings and intimidating names like the F-101 Voodoo, the F-102 Delta Dagger and the F-105 Thunder Chief. 

While Bluford was a young pilot climbing into cockpits on his way to becoming an astronaut, my brother Charles was a young engineer with a slide rule on his way to becoming a rocket scientist. For nearly a decade he toiled in the New Mexico desert working on rocket and missile projects so secret that he is still not allowed to talk about them.

Bluford's maiden voyage, aboard Challenger in 1983, took place with a great deal of fanfare. President Ronald Reagan took to calling him by his nickname, saying, "Guy, you are paving the way for many others and making it plain that we are in an era of brotherhood."