“…Astronaut Allan Shepard made history as the first American in space with a sub-orbital flight in May 1961 aboard his Mercury spacecraft, Freedom 7.
One year later, in 1962, the TIROS satellite began continuous coverage of the Earth’s weather and provided the first accurate weather forecasts based on data from space…”
Warren’s mother motioned for him to come on, trying to lure her son away from the illuminated, Plexiglas board showing chronological scenes from the history of N.A.S.A. The miniature, built-in speakers began to replay their looped recording, while Warren studied the glowing pictures for a final moment, and then followed his mother on into the next segment of the annual science fair caravan.
The subsequent segment of the science fair caravan, actually a series of mobile homes linked together by platforms in a park, displayed an informative overview of the green house effect. These displays had no recorded narratives, sound effects or illuminated picture boards, but rather boring pie graphs, air-born photographs of jungles and Green Peace pamphlets on recycling. Being totally uninteresting for a six-year-old boy, Warren did not linger in this exhibition.
Continuing through the other sections of the fair, Warren looked inside a glass case showing antique examples of Florentine flasks, admired close-up photographs of newly-discovered species of deep sea insects and was able to graze his fingers over a variety of Formica samples, which had been glued to cardboard description panels.
His mother led the way, as Warren stepped across one of the makeshift, wooden platforms between mobile homes and entered the last installation of the par course. From outside the darkened interior, electronic beeps and fuzzy barks of radio static could be heard, instantly arousing Warren’s curiosity to see what lay inside.
Clutching his mother’s hand tightly, their eyes adjusted to the dim, bleeping setting entitled, New Frontiers. The first half of the darkened space contained a remarkably realistic replica of a mission control centre, complete with switchboards, monitors, radar scans and satellite transmission feeds. Against the wall in the farther half of the space Warren saw, bathed by a dramatic spot light, a life-size mannequin dressed in a shiny silver space suit sitting rigidly in the cramped seat of a capsule cockpit. Through the transparent glass of the helmet, Warren could see the mannequin’s face staring blankly back at the science fair’s hushed visitors. Despite the recorded radio communications that crackled over unseen speakers, the astronaut’s lips did not move. His eyes did not blink. His neck did not turn.
Warren moved closer to the figure, still holding his mother’s hand tightly. The padded space suit reminded him of aluminium foil and he discovered that the capsule seat consisted of more straps and metal than the spacious, cushiony cockpits he knew from movies.
“Wow, Warren, look at that, a real space man,” his mother said, as they inspected the life like figure from an uncomfortably close proximity.
Warren could hardly bring himself to look up into the helmet’s visor. The mannequin’s size and weight made him uneasy, as if at any moment the silver gloves might reach out to grab him. The atmosphere inside the New Frontiers trailer pressed into Warren’s senses like the weight of a mausoleum. The monitors blinked as mechanised eyes, their reflections filling the space with slanted shadows and blue-bleached illumination. The buzzing transmissions whispered words that had come from far beyond the late September afternoon.
Several months later, Warren saw a documentary on TV about the ill-fated Apollo 1 launch test. Engrossed by the story, he listened to the narration and watched the old footage of astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee heading towards launch pad 34 for their routine pre-launch test inside the command module. The three men were dressed in silver space suits, exactly like the mannequin Warren had seen at the science fair.
“…Suddenly all the dials and gauges went crazy. A voice shouted, "fire". It was the voice of one of the astronauts. The controllers looked at the screen that should be showing the interior of the Apollo capsule, all they could see was a fireball. Gus Grissom's voice came over the comms, "I've got a fire in the cockpit". There were more shouts, a scream and then silence. The interior of Apollo I had become a blowtorch and in eight seconds Grissom, White and Chaffee were dead. Everybody's worst nightmare had just become a reality.”
Warren fell asleep that night with the static sound of Gus Grissom’s voice echoing in his head, unable to make the science fair mannequin’s face go away, as it stared out at him from the shadows of the closet.
Another summer was winding down. Warren held his seventh birthday party in the local park, playing touch football with a group of friends. Off to the side, a crew of workmen had been unloading large stacks of lumber from a wagon throughout the afternoon. Warren glanced over at them during the touch football game, curious as to what they were going to build.
By the time that the birthday party was winding down, the first mobile home was driven in and parked upon the grass. Warren looked out from his parent’s car as they were leaving the park, seeing two more trailers positioned along side the first. The annual science fair caravan was scheduled to open the following weekend. The expensive, New Frontiers setting the city had especially commissioned for the fair was coming back. Soon the silent astronaut would be hanging on the wall again, buckled back into his cockpit like a futuristic pharaoh awaiting the imperishable stars.
For an afternoon outing with his school friend Jeff, Warren was taken to the science fair caravan. Jeff’s parents paid the entrance fee and the little group slowly worked their way through the par course of exhibitions. Some displays were new to Warren; some displays, such as the Formica rocks, were identical to the year before.
In reaching the last mobile home trailer, the familiar electronic sounds filtered out through the curtained doorway. Warren tensed up, knowing what waited inside the dimness. Stepping inside the mission control setting, Warren had entered the room a hundred times in his thoughts. This year he studied the display in more detail, noting words on the panel switches and the dials such as: TAKE OFF WEIGHT, TAKE OFF THRUST, OXYGEN INJECTION and COMPBUSTION TEMPURATURE.
Moving around to the astronaut mannequin, Warren grew wondrously nervous, imagining Gus Grissom’s last words in between the beeping transmissions and radio static. There was the face again, the face that visited him at night, the face that peeped out from his closet in the dark, never blinking, never moving.
The spot light glistened over the silver space suit. The huge bubble helmet was a sophisticated coffin, encasing a conscious corpse. The gloved fingers were slightly bent, gripping the edge of the cockpit seat, that Warren knew at any moment would burst into flame.
Because the New Frontiers setting was so impressively life like, it became a local favourite and the organisers of the science fair caravan made sure that it returned to the par course year after year. Each autumn, during the second week in September, Warren would see the workmen arriving in the park, laying out their stacks of lumber, awaiting the mobile homes upon the grass. The workmen gradually became the anonymous foreshadowers of the silver-clad mummy, the open-eyed face of petrifaction that returned every year to sit upon his metal, ejector throne.
By the time he was fourteen, Warren was secretly New Frontiers favourite fan. Some years he visited the science fair three times in one week, savouring his tense, euphoric moments in front of the helmeted mannequin. The pale, never-changing visage gazed through the transparent shield and Warren began to see his own eyes inside the dummy mask. He wondered what tissue lie underneath the silvery urethane-coated nylon, so softly bent at the knees and the elbows? Were those limbs made of cotton, plastic, loose stuffing or charred muscle and bone? What filled the thorax behind the chest-pack, a wad of crumpled foam or a fossilised, scorched pericardium that had once beaten with expectation?
Warren eventually went away to collage and moved to another city. Though one September, when he was back visiting his parents, Warren was walking through the park where he had often played as a child. He was strolling along a footpath, taking into account all the things that had changed since his youth, when the sound slapping lumber interrupted his thoughts. Looking off towards the source of the noise, Warren saw a team of county workmen busily laying out several stacks of planks in different lengths. A large mobile home waited nearby, resting upon the bed of a 10-metre long tractor-trailer.
Awakening in the middle of the night, Warren sat up in his old bed. The digital alarm clock read 2:31 A.M. Closing his eyes again; he tried to doze back off to sleep. However, Warren lingered in a shallow, semi-conscious state, drifting in and out of warm, restless dreams.
From the direction of his closed closet, he could hear the sound of saws and hammers, scratching and clacking out into his bedroom. The beating and slapping of boards continued until Warren was forced to get up and investigate. When he opened the door to his closet, the first thing he saw was a Timberland hiking boot and a few stray nails, scattered about the carpeted floor. The man wearing the hiking boots was too busy hammering to answer any of Warren’s sleepy questions. He simply went on with his task, affixing a hand rail to the wooden platform that extended through the back of the closet, down into a set of steps that disappeared in to the darkness of old coats and too-small soccer shoes.
Other workmen within the closet were also oblivious to Warren, as he mounted the wooden scaffold they were so intently putting together. Following the set of descending steps, Warren walked down into the shadows of his closet, moving closer and closer to the sound of a control room.
“He’s just accessed the gantry,” spoke a voice over a crackly intercom. Warren looked around, but couldn’t see anyone.
“Who’s there?” he asked. No one replied.
“Confirm that,” crackled another voice, “T-minus four minutes and counting… Systems control, all lights are green…”
From the sides of the closet Warren saw racks of Green Peace pamphlets and felt the crunching of Formica rocks under his feet. His hands were now covered with thick, thermal insulated gloves and his previously bare feet moved heavily in shiny silver-coloured boots.
“T-minus three minutes and counting… Systems control all lights are green…”
Looking around in confusion, Warren reached the bottom step of the wooden staircase. Sitting beneath a spot light directly in front of him was the mannequin astronaut.
“Hello, Warren,” it said in a crackly, radio voice. “Are you ready for your mission?”
“What mission?” replied Warren, wondering how the mannequin had spoken with out moving its lips.
“Your mission into the New Frontier…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
“I believe that you do…”
Warren saw that far off behind the astronaut, two space shuttles were being primed for take off.
“I’ve been waiting for you to come down here for a very long time,” continued the mannequin. “And now your moon corridor is almost open…”
Warren didn’t know what to say. His eyes shifted back and forth between the astronaut and the two erect shuttles in the distance.
“Your curiosity has led you this far, why not let me show you the things you’ve always wanted to see… Cirrus Minor, the Nebula in Ursa… While orbiting the moon, we’ll fly in low, over the Ocean of Storms and the Sea of Tranquillity…”
“But,” began Warren, “I don’t really want to see those things, you’re mistaken… I’m afraid to go with you.”
“Afraid? What could you possibly be afraid of? …Was it out of fear that you kept returning to the science fair, year after year? Did you keep coming back to see me because you were afraid?”
Warren began stepping back towards his bedroom. “I, I don’t know why I kept coming back to see you?”
“But something brought you back to me, I could see it in your eyes… Wasn’t it a thirst for adventure, the secret longing to transcend your limitations? Just seeing the workmen setting up the platforms in the park caused you to break out in a sweat…was it because you knew that they were putting together the bridge that would take you to the other side?”
Warren shook his head, retreating further back up the steps, away from the waxen space face.
“…Step just a little closer, Warren, down to the edge of the gantry… The Challenger and the Columbia are fuelled and cleared for lift off. You can trust them, just like you can trust me…”