As a young boy growing up in Alabama in the 1960's with an uncle who worked for the space program in Huntsville during the Apollo program I was bitten hard by the space bug. The first real book I ever read was a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury called "R is for Rocket". That book was of course science fiction, and it fueled my life-long passion for the genre, but I soon moved on to more practical volumes, like "1001 Questions Answered About Space". All I wanted to be was an astronaut, but an earlier childhood injury seemed to dash all hopes for fulfilling this dream, more on that later, so I decided I would have to settle for being a rocket scientist like my uncle. He used to send me engineering drawings of the Saturn V rocket with cut-away details of the command module and I had these plastered all over my bedroom wall, along with my beloved poster of Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

While the other kids in my neighborhood settled for shooting off fireworks a couple of times per year on the 4th of July and New Year's, from the age of ten I was ordering model rocket kits from Estes in Colorado and building them year-round, eventually even my own designs from parts I fashioned myself from balsa wood and cardboard tubes, painting these bright colors easy to track at altitude. So then only the engines came from Estes and sometimes from Venturi, their single competitor in this somewhat obscure hobbyist field. One such rocket I designed with slightly tilted fins for spin stabilization and fitted out with the most powerful booster engines that Estes sold at the time. After training my pet "Astromouse" in his little wheel that I pressed into service as a centrifuge, he was ready for his trip into space. Of course I knew at best the rocket might reach perhaps the low cloud cover, but the neighborhood kids were convinced that this mouse was headed for orbit and they showed up in droves for the launch. You can see a couple of these kids off in the distance from the closeup of launching pad, note the date on the left edge of the photo is December, 1968. What you can't see is the other dozen or so kids behind the camera, standing beside me and the launch control box, which included a key, a red light, and of course a red button.

The countdown and launch went off without a hitch. The rocket did in fact disappear into the cloud cover, eliciting a hushed awe from the crowd. But then the last stage fired, popping the "command module" off its final stage and the parachute deployed flawlessly, bringing Astromouse back within sight of the launch pad at the far edge of the field. He had a slight nosebleed and was a bit shaky, but otherwise none the worse for his adventure, and he lived to a ripe, mouse old age afterward. Retired, so to speak.

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...a Czech-speaking American expat living in Prague since 1993.

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