When I was a young teen, Star Trek and the Space Shuttle were the focus of every boy’s dreams. I wanted to be a scientist and astronaut. So did my closest pal Joe. We would read science fiction novels, make Estes model rockets, and shoot them to the moon.
We had sent up all sorts of brave astronauts, including insects, fish and frogs, but the bravest of these was the trio of field mice caught alive for a very scientific mission. The payload section was especially padded for safety and the countdown commenced.
Ten… We had scrupulously written our observations of all missions in a bound booklet for future use. All preparations, details of flight and after-flight effects upon astronauts were meticulously written down. We were like the Lewis and Clarks of a new age of space adventurers. Some of the Estes models were superior and adequate for “manned” flight. Others were just downright dangerous and could have taken down a small Cesna aircraft. We were bound and determined to take any risks necessary to launch our new age of star adventures.
Nine… The rocket itself had three of the largest chemical rocket charges ever built by teen. It would be deemed a dangerous explosive today. On school property even. Don’t attempt this yourself, kids. We were professionals. And they would call you a terrorist today and ship you off to reform school or Gitmo for teens or worse.
Eight… We never named an astronaut. It was a good policy. Not only was the work inherently dangerous, but it would have interfered with our impartiality as scientists. Don’t want to get too close to an astronaut. Might induce one to pack too much padding.
Seven… We were limited as to who could be chosen as an astronaut by the size of our rockets. Some had very small payload compartments. Only one subject at a time was usually allowed. A fish was the most challenging occupant we sent up, and the most rewarding information we documented was gleaned by the first fishonauts. The very first flight, the fishonaut was sealed with enough oxygen for the entire flight and any time required to chase down the parachute, which sometimes was close to a mile away. Yes, we had learned in chemistry class that the O in water’s scientific symbol stood for oxygen. A handy thing for a scientist to know before sending a fish up. They actually survive the flight quite well. One of the side effects we noted after flight was that a fish will swim upside down for about an hour. Apparently it loses all sense of time and space and gravity. Or it is swallowed by a wormhole and has PTSD.
Six… The ignition system was quite dangerous in and of itself. It consisted of a 12 volt battery, two strands of wiring attached to the switch, a key that, when removed from the switch, rendered it inoperable and safe (theoretically), and positive and negative end wires leading to two very small brass alligator clips. These clips would be attached to each end of an ignition wire shoved up the tail end of the chemical propellent engine. When the whole very unreliable electronic apparatus was assembled correctly and the key was inserted, a red light on the switch showed a good connection and all one had to do was push the red button to ignite the engine and send the destructive craft to its destiny in the sky with its unwilling passenger(s). When I went through U.S. Army basic training I soon realized that the manufacturers of Estes ignition systems must also supply a similar system for the Claymore land mine. Only the best for our troops.
Five… Yes, in 1969 as elementary students, both Joe and I were forced to endure Walter Cronkite’s memorable commentary on the first live moon landing mission of Neil Armstrong and crew. Although it would inspire the three-mouse flight much later in our lives, Joe and I harbored doubts that the moon landing was real as it occurred on the black and white T.V. in our classroom. After all, Captain James T. Kirk didn’t need The Eagle to land on the moon, just a transporter beam and a space suit. So Cronkite’s tale was suspect.
Four… Although we still in general felt that girls were just boys that hit harder, puberty had recently set in with me. Every time I visited Joe I wished I could look upon the scraggly tomboy who lived next door named Lynn. Lynn could milk her father’s cows, shoot a BB gun and hold her own in a wrestling match, but one day when I was at Joe’s in his pool, she came over in a white bikini and changed my view of her and all womankind forever. We usually had playful tussles and splashing as we teased the female race, but as she and I both went for the beach ball at the same time and tugged at one another as usual, a sudden realization came to me. She was different. Her anatomy was blossoming. I didn’t know how to handle it, so I did what any red-blooded American boy would do. I made fun of her. Yet the crush continued to interrupt my scientific reasoning. The day of the launch, we had invited her and a friend to come watch. She seemed very interested, but it filled my mind with sensual ponderings unnamed as I wondered if she would come to look at my rocket.
Three… All three brave mouseonauts were chosen for their inability to escape us no matter how hard they tried. Joe’s dad was a blue collar worker who smoked cigars. Joe had one of his empty cigar boxes with holes forked in its top for air flow. A side note: Always fork the holes in the top of the box BEFORE astronauts are placed inside.
Two… Lynn and her cute friend showed up at the last moment, almost jarring my thoughts to the point of setting off the rocket in Joe’s face. Fortunately for his face (which already had too many red freckles on it), Joe noticed my error and with a little bit of loud irritated discussion put his scientific colleague back on track.
One… The rocket itself was a scale model of the Nazi V-2 rocket that terrorized the English populace in World War II. Supreme irony that both the United States and Estes brought it to this country to terrorize man and mouse alike. Even with three large engines, it was a big, lumbering craft, quite unlike the payload rockets I had built in the past. The payload section was the entire plastic nose cone, more than large enough to house three mouseonauts. I assured Lynn that they were perfectly safe in the part of the V-2 that normally housed the warhead.
Zero… My thumb pressed down on the red button that no President had pressed in all the modern history of the United States. Yet, the safety of the Free World was at stake. The Rushkies couldn’t be allowed to send up three mice before our illustrious nation.
Liftoff… The V-2 rocket finally ignited, and slowly, methodically, the pig of a missile went up, up, up, to about two or three hundred feet, pitiful for an Estes rocket. The engines discharged, which should have blown both the nose cone with our faithful travelers in it and its extra large parachute out. But there was a malfunction. The three engines did not eject the nose cone, and the V-2 plunged to the earth, reminding one of its role in the Blitz many years before. Lynn and her friend let out a gasp of terror as it fell to earth. Major Tom to Ground Control: We have a misfire, Houston.
Crash… The three brave mouseonauts did not survive. But, according to our meticulous notes, they evidently did not know what hit them, nor what they hit. All three back bones were instantly broken on impact, their short, but brave careers ended forever. The space race would never be the same again.
We buried them at the edge of Joe’s field with full military honors rivaling Mr. Spock’s ceremony in the Star Trek movie, but without the photon torpedo and without the Genesis effect and subsequent incomprehensible resurrection. Lynn attended, teary-eyed, and a ban on use of mouseonauts was instituted from that moment forward. A cinder block memorial was the only marker to show the tomb of the three brave souls that shall remain forever in the hearts and minds of boys, mice and men.
Eric M. Vogt