"A young man's game"
The astronaut came back to Earth and everybody was pleased to see him.
He barely had time to remove his helmet and crawl out of the landing pod into the hot, white heat of the desert before flashbulbs were blinding him and men in white hazard suits were slamming him on the back and congratulating him on his journey.
‘You must be glad to be back, Sir.’ they told him.
For a second, he caught a glimpse of the hot, blue sky arcing out above him, before he was bundled unceremoniously into a jeep and quickly driven away.
Later, from a decontamination booth, he faced the press and their multitude of questions. He expected that they would have all sorts of queries, but he was surprised by what they actually chose to ask:
What was the food like in space?
How did he go to the toilet up there?
Had he seen any aliens on his journey?
Had he seen God?
The astronaut took a long pause to thoroughly digest the questions and then he answered with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
He told them that the food was adequate but rather boring. He explained to them that he went to the toilet in much the same manner that they did. He revealed that he had neither seen nor heard from aliens on his journey and neither had he met God.
The press seemed disappointed. One of them asked him which baseball team he followed and he told them that he liked the Red Sox. The press seemed happier with that and wrote it down in their jotters.
‘You must be glad to be back,’ they told him.
A little while later, after he had been decontaminated, debriefed and was able to leave quarantine; the astronaut was moved into a hotel in the city, where he got to see his wife for a few short hours. His wife told him that, while he had been away, the neighbour’s dog had died. She went on to ask his advice on the best way to fix the washing machine, which had developed a fault while he was up in space. She also reminded him that the lawn would soon need mowing. The astronaut waited for his wife to ask him some other questions, but it seemed that these were all she had for now.
‘You must be glad to be back, Dear,’ she said.
Over the next few weeks the astronaut conducted a series of television interviews, where he was introduced to a round of applause from the studio audience and asked a variety of questions by the hosts. The questions were mostly about his toilet activities in space and his thoughts on the Red Sox’s potential in this year’s World Series.
He told the hosts that he hoped the Red Sox would do well but explained, to gentle laughter, that he was somewhat out of touch with the game of baseball. He didn’t know why they laughed. He hadn’t been telling a joke.
The hosts, meanwhile, nodded understandingly.
‘Well,’ they said, ‘you must be glad to be back.’
For a few years afterwards, the astronaut lived quietly in his former home town. He mowed the lawn and he fixed the washing machine and when it broke again in the summer he bought a new one. Now and again, he watched the baseball and checked on the Red Sox’s progress, but he found that the game had somehow lost its fervor and that it no longer held his interest in the same way that it once had. Occasionally, he would bump into old acquaintances about town who would ask him what he had been up to.
‘I’ve been up to space,’ he would reply and the acquaintances would look at him in the way one might examine a particularly tricky quadratic equation.
‘Oh yes,’ they would say, silently wondering about how he went to the toilet up there. Then they would start a new conversation, usually about baseball. ‘You must be glad to be back,’ they would offer, reassuringly, as they bid him good day.
One day, the astronaut went back to Mission Control. He phoned ahead to tell them he was coming and he was given a hero’s reception.
‘What can we do for you?’ said the head of the space programme.
The astronaut told the head of the programme that he would like to go back into space. He told the head of the programme that he would like to go back into space as soon as possible and on the next available mission.
The head of the programme gave him a peculiar look and asked him whatever for. The head of the programme explained that space was now ‘a young man’s game’ and that there would be no need for him to ever go back into space again.
‘Besides,’ said the head of the programme ‘you were away for so long, you must be glad to be back.’
So the astronaut went home again and loaded the dishwasher and helped his wife finish a crossword.
A few months later, the astronaut sold his house in the city and moved out to a ranch near the desert. His wife moved with him and for a few years they lived together in their new home. By day, he would ride horses and by night he would sit out on the porch and look up at the stars. By and by, he would note the distant flare of a rocket, a new mission, perhaps, sending younger more able men up into space.
When his wife passed away, a few years later, the astronaut opted to stay in the ranch, alone. He wasn’t up to riding horses anymore and so he read long science fiction novels instead. One morning, he read a dispiriting newspaper report about the anniversary of the space mission that he had returned from all those years ago. It seemed that the space exploration business was not now a young man’s game, nor was it an old man’s game, instead it had become a robot’s game. There were fewer and fewer rockets fizzling up into the darkness of eternity and the industry seemed to be quietly disassembling itself, neatly packing its bits and bobs away in a warehouse, to wait for a time when it might be useful to someone once again.
At the bottom of the article was a picture of the astronaut, looking young and happy. It was accompanied by a little sub-article profiling the astronaut himself. It talked of how, following the initial celebrity he had enjoyed on his return to Earth, he had become something of a recluse, refusing to talk about the mission or give interviews to the press; even the ones who asked him about baseball. It talked about the existence of various organisations who now believed that the astronaut had never really gone into space, preferring the theory that the whole space programme was nothing more than a governmental fabrication, filmed in a television studio and designed to win votes at an election.
The astronaut quietly folded up the newspaper as he put it in the trash. Then he phoned the delivery service to cancel his subscription.
Later that night, he sat alone on his porch, looking out towards the desert as he so often did. Above him the constellation of Vela sparkled in the inky void and he pulled a blanket over his knees to keep back the encroaching cold. From far in the distance, he thought he heard a sound; a low, quiet rumbling. Perhaps, he thought, it was the sound of equipment being neatly packed away into a soon to be forgotten warehouse, or perhaps…perhaps it was the roar of one final rocket. Perhaps, it was a rocket full of people like him; people who were fed up of being told they must be glad to be back. Fed up of being asked inane questions about things that didn’t matter by people who couldn’t understand where they had been and what they had done.
The astronaut closed his eyes and thought about being on that rocket. He thought about the texture of the cold, steel control panel at his fingertips, the heat of the cabin rising as it shook, hearing the noise and vibration all around him as the engines shuddered into life.
Softly, his lips trembled out a final countdown.
The next morning, the sun rose into a new sky and, in the evening, the Red Sox won the first game of the series.