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.

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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. 

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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."

It was also the first nighttime shuttle launch. NASA flew in a planeload of prominent African-American politicians, civil rights leaders, educators, aviators and scientists to witness the historic event. They included Congressional Black Caucus members Reps. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) and William Gray (D-Pa.), Urban League President John Jacob, National Council of Negro Women President Dorothy Height, a delegation of Tuskegee Airmen … and my brother the rocket scientist.

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Charles will always remember where he was on Aug. 30, 1983. He was standing in the dark with other dignitaries at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in a three-hour rain delay. Sitting atop 4.4 million pounds of the most explosive fuel known to man, Bluford and six other crewmen also waited for the countdown. Sometime after midnight, it came. Three … two … one … liftoff! 

This is how my brother described Challenger's launch that night: "There was this powerful, deafening wall of sound, louder than any home or car-speaker system you could imagine. You felt it as much as you heard it with the ground rumbling. Then there was the brightness of light given off by the burning plumes of rocket fuel and enormous solid-fuel boosters.

"It was so bright, it was almost as if night had turned to day. She started slowly at first, almost like she didn't want to go. But once she was off the pad, she started picking up speed. Then there was another plume of brightness as they dropped the booster tanks and went throttle up. Next thing you know she's gone. It's night again. You can't tell Challenger from any other star in the sky."

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My brother was still excited when he told me this over the phone several days later. Though he was a grown man, his voice elevated in youthful exuberance. It took me back to a time when he turned our attic into a spaceship.

Richard T. Watkins is an award-winning broadcast journalist in Washington, D.C.