Authors: Phil Stamper
Once we’re on the road, I busy myself by pulling up all the information I can find about the Orpheus program. Its goals, what it means for our country—outside of the entertainment factor, that is. Orpheus V will take six astronauts to Mars, where they’ll build a temporary Martian base, execute some elaborate excavation plans, and perform scientific experiments. Not long after that, Orpheus VI and VII will be on their way, bringing supplies to Mars to set up a permanent base, while Orpheus V sweeps back toward Earth, carrying a ton of soil and rock samples.
I switch to the full
story and see variations on the Tucker family portrait. Their eyes stare back at me; their faces hide all emotion behind them. Where I look for panic, I see reserved excitement. Practiced excitement. Grace Tucker’s two
teens play their roles well—Leon, the serious, Olympics-bound brother (who is
hot, if that wasn’t clear), and Katherine, the precocious sister.
It makes me wonder … what role will I play?
The article has a few more pictures spread out of the family together, posed on sets from the sixties. It reminds me of some of the old magazines I’ve seen. A wholesome family candid, with the family around the small box television with its wooden frame and obnoxious antenna.
“Do you know much about the sixties? Like, the Apollo missions?” I ask.
Dad fake swerves the car and gasps. I roll my eyes. Mom shakes her head but doesn’t start a fight.
“You’re asking about the sixties? You’re asking me and not Siri?”
“Dad, no one actually uses Siri. And whatever, I’ll just look it up,” I say, knowing he will absolutely not let me do that, now I’ve shown an interest.
“So clearly, I wasn’t around then, but the sixties and early seventies were the golden age of spaceflight.” I catch his eye, and I can see the sparkle from here. “See, the astronauts moved to Clear Lake and the surrounding areas, and they all lived together, partied together, mourned together, and, eventually, some of them took America to the moon and back. It was a scene, like nothing that’s ever happened before. I know you don’t care for
, but even back then, the town was always swamped with the press. You couldn’t get a car down the street to save your life on launch days because of all
the news trucks and fans. It was like Hollywood or something.”
“You showed me those articles once before, I think.”
“I have all the good ones in the storage unit. Not doing much good there, I guess. But the country was obsessed with the astronauts. The whole country held their breath as mathematics and sheer brilliance brought back the Apollo 13 crew from the explosion that could have taken their lives. And they mourned when the Apollo 1 flight crew were burned alive on the test pad, thanks to a vulnerable wire and a pure oxygen atmosphere.” A silence fills the car. “They were the true American heroes, all of them.”
I listen to him talk, and I’m mesmerized. He cares so much, but I never really knew. I mean, he had a few books on this; he obviously loved flying planes … which is also why this eight-billion-mile road trip was utterly confusing for me. Was this really his dream all along? Was I never paying attention?
“That’s cool, Dad.”
My mom laughs at this and places her hand softly on my dad’s leg. I feel the connection in the car. It’s warm, and for one moment, we’re all smiling. I can’t even think of the last time we were content to be around one another. No shouting. No slammed doors, no loud music to drown it all out.
I know it can’t last. I know my parents, and a part of me wonders if this truly is happiness or defeated acceptance. But I savor the moment as I pull up old paparazzi photos and
clips. I start taking note of everyone’s expressions:
crisp, practiced, perfect. Are they all that good at faking it? Or do they actually buy into all this? I’m looking for a flaw, but I can’t find the reality behind the show. Until I come upon a candid shot from one of the parties—looks like another mixer at the Tuckers’ house. Grace has on a sleek, formfitting red cocktail dress; her laugh looks so pure it makes you want to join in. But in the background—
“Leon,” I say.
Mom turns around. “What’s that?”
“Oh, I mean, nothing.” I return to the image. “Just thinking.”
He’s sitting on their couch, the glow of his phone illuminating his face. But he’s looking up at the spectacle of it all, just past the camera. And there’s a brooding there that pulls me in.
I’m interested in him purely from a journalistic standpoint
, I remind myself, even as his narrowed eyes and sharp jaw pierce through my chest. It’s easy to crush on him for being insanely good looking, sure, but what appeals to me the most is his expression.
There’s a fire that burns behind those eyes, and I cling to hope that maybe he’s a cynic, like me. My breath catches, and my hand reaches out to the picture. I might be imagining it, but I still cling onto the hope that
in that suburb could actually be my ally.
Or maybe … maybe something more.
Praise me, for I have lived through a twenty-four-hour car ride. I have lived through two nights in crappy hotels—believe me, the best hotel in Higginsville, Mississippi, is roughly a negative-three-star hotel by New York standards. I survived staying in the same hotel room as my parents, in tiny rooms with thin walls and two double beds.
I have lived through figurative hell, and my reward? Arriving in literal hell. Clear Lake, Texas, at ninety-two degrees.
I step out of the car and survey my new hometown. The heat is wet—the humidity clings to my body, to my lungs, to my eyelids. We’ve pulled into a park to stretch our legs as we wait for our NASA rep to come show us to our new house.
There’s a swing set, a few of those rocking ponies, and an old metal slide all on a bed of wood chips. I try to imagine the kids of the Mercury astronauts from the early sixties—Astrokids, I think they were called—playing in this same park.
I imagine a picture-perfect mom holding an infant in her arm while pushing a toddler in the little swing that looks like a plastic sumo uniform.
Standing here in this swampy mess of a day, I wonder how much they had to fake it for the cameras. Put on a happy face, retouching their makeup between diaper changes and photo shoots. The astronauts had their jobs—to get us to the moon—but their wives had it even harder. They had to fit in, raise their children, take care of the house, the lawn, the gardens, the cooking, the baking, the parties, all while caking on the makeup.
The Astrokids must have played their parts just as well—rambunctious when the magazines wanted them to be, calm and pensive at other times. I groan when I think about playing that part now.
“Cal!” Dad shouts. He’s in good spirits, which is the only positive thing to come from this sweaty nightmare. “The NASA guy is pulling up now.”
Dad’s smile reminds me again of the absence of fighting between all of us. It’s like we’re back to the pseudonormalcy of our pre-NASA days. Dad has plenty of reasons to be happy, but why is my mom smiling too? Does she not want to shatter his fragile happiness? Is she pushing down her feelings? Her angst about being taken away from Brooklyn, her irritation for the duties that are about to be added on top of the fifty hours a week she spends coding? The spouses aren’t like the astronaut wives of the sixties—prim, perfect, calm, sober—but there’s still an expectation.
Or is she actually … happy? Hopeful?
That thought makes me nauseous. She was supposed to be on my side.
The “NASA guy” gets out of his car, and quickly makes his way to Dad. He’s supremely put together, with his short but styled blond hair, checkered shirt buttoned to the top with no tie, and gray slacks that fade into brown boots. The fact he’s in anything but shorts makes me sweat doubly on his behalf. Are Texans just immune to this?
He shakes my hand as soon as I get to the group.
“Brendan,” he says. “You must be Calvin Junior.”
I offer a faint smile. “That’s Calvin,” I say, pointing to my dad. “Call me Cal.”
“Got it. Well, do you want to see your new house?” he asks. “Get ready for it. NASA’s been big on bringing back the retro appeal.”
He rolls his eyes briefly, but his smirk says it all: it may be over the top, but it’s worth it.
The town’s not awful. It’s even kind of cute. There’s a different kind of history here.
history. Brooklyn has homes that date back 150 years—even our apartment had the original hardwood floors from the early 1900s.
We pull up to our house, and I take in the pristine lawn, which fades into the precisely cut bushes lining the house. It’s been so recently painted you can see a glossy shine. The windows sparkle; the mailbox has our last name etched into it.
There’s something so real about this place, and it counters everything I got from the park. Seeing the pictures, reading the stories, it all seemed perfect.
And this kind of …
perfect. I watch my dad take it all in, his smile gone—his expression replaced with a look of pure wonderment.
If I’m feeling this way, I can only imagine the thoughts going through his head.
“As I’m sure you know, we’ve got a little … media problem here,” Brendan says as he unlocks the door to our new house and steps inside. “Mostly local news, people looking for anything to trend. A few amateurs who want to sell footage to StarWatch, which is a whole other beast you’ll need to prepare for. But there are strict rules, even for StarWatch: They get full filming rights inside the astronauts’ houses—within reason, of course—and at the space station, but at the end of the day, it’s your home. You decide whether to let them in, keep them outside, or
Brendan and I share a smile, and there’s a strange comfort in having clear boundaries and a little bit of control over our new life.
“So why isn’t anyone here now?” Dad asks, disappointment hitting his face. Like he’s actually looking forward to getting assaulted by the press.
Brendan laughs. “NASA’s holding a press conference now and mentioned
, so every camera in the city is there. The media team tricked them into thinking we’re announcing the final astronaut, basically, so they didn’t swarm you right away. Don’t worry, we’ll let you settle in first.”
I hear my mom’s sigh of relief from here. When our eyes
meet, a quirk of a smile hits her face. Even if Dad doesn’t end up on a flight, this is going to be a wild ride.
“Does everyone who works at NASA have this problem?” I ask.
“Well, I don’t. Since the news isn’t very excited about the soil samples I work on.” He chuckles, and ends with a high-pitched huff. “But the astronauts have to deal with it, all of them. They’re—
—the interesting ones.”
“I mean, soil can be interesting, I guess?”
“My team thinks so, but I doubt the general public does. Not yet at least.” He shrugs. “Rovers send back a ton of great data, but they can only do so much—we’ll get the first samples back after the Orpheus VI flyby, where we can do real tests, study the soil in a lab, that stuff.”
If there’s one thing I know about the “general public,” it’s that no self-professed media pro actually knows what the public is interested in. Sometimes trial and error is worth a shot, but it’s not surprising StarWatch would choose glamour and prestige over … dirt.
After following him inside, I take my first refreshing breath. The cool air makes my skin prickle all over, in the best way. The place is sterile, new. Foreign.
My dad paces around the living room, where a brand-new television sits on a midcentury-modern sideboard. A light-colored plush couch faces a retro coffee table flanked by two accent chairs.
Okay, this is a pretty cool house.
The whole place balances vintage personality with modern appliances. A record player sits on a bookshelf, with a collection of vintage records at its side. They really went
on this retro thing. If you replaced that record player with a tape deck, I might be kind of here for it.
“Your lawn is your own. There’s a special number for the local police on the fridge. The media isn’t
bad, usually. But they’ll only get worse as we get closer to Orpheus V launch.”
I take in this moment of peace, knowing it’ll be my last in a while, and follow Brendan to my room. I throw my bag on my new bed, say I’m going to change, and shut the door. I find my dresser—this is where my cassette deck will go, I’ve decided—and I sit and lean against it, slumping down.
I take a few deep breaths. Admitting I like our new home, even this town, feels like I’m abandoning my old life.
I pull out my phone and open the FlashFame app. Then I close it. I know the rules, I’ve read Dad’s contract—
to stay consistent with the narrative arc set by the Shooting Stars host and producers, no streamed or recorded video is to be shared publicly without prior consent and guidance from StarWatch Media LLC.
Meaning, they don’t necessarily want me to shut down my accounts. But they want to control it—which is even worse. The pang in my gut gets stronger as I type out a text to Deb.
I think I’m going to do it. I mean, technically, I haven’t signed anything, right? They can’t sue me or whatever, right?
I planned on updating on the way down and telling my followers I was going on a brief social media hiatus, but I wasn’t able to do it in the car, and the rest stops and hotel rooms only provide so much privacy—meaning, none at all.
But now that I’m here, knowing that my dream is flickering like a dying candle, I can’t go on any hiatus. I can’t—no, I
let StarWatch control me.
I clear my throat and stare at myself in the camera. My dark hair covers my eyes, a cowlick pushing my hair up in the back. Not my hottest moment, but this will be short.
As soon as I hit the LIVE button, the viewers tab starts climbing. I let it pause for a minute, allowing my followers to react to the notification they all got on their phones before I start. I smile and point to my cowlick comically as the hundreds of viewers become thousands. In the middle of the day on a Wednesday.
Who are these people?
Why do they care?
And then I don’t care why they care, because I enjoy being a little famous. My core tightens again, at the thought of being forced to shut my account down. To give up everything I’ve worked for. By the time I got back to New York, I’d have … nothing.
“Hi, everyone,” I say, voice squeaking, after the viewers tab hits two thousand. “I, um, have one hell of an update for you all, so sit tight.”
I feel the rush flow through me. Once again, there’s a story out there to break. And I’m doing it myself.
“Let’s cut the intro,” I say, deciding to rip off the bandage.
“You’ve all started to notice I’ve been dodging questions when it comes to NASA and the Orpheus missions, and it’s time I told you why. The twentieth and final astronaut added to Project Orpheus is none other than … Calvin Lewis. No, not me, my father, Calvin Lewis
. I’m coming to you live from Clear Lake, Texas, where we’ve just relocated. Recognize this dresser? This room? No? Well, I don’t either, but if I have my way, both of us are going to see a lot of it in the future, so get ready.”
I get up and walk around the room, collapsing on the foam mattress. I hold the camera high above my head.
“So, yes, I may have broken a big news story just now, but if you all don’t mind, I need to turn this into a personal story. My father—an airline pilot turned astronaut, apparently—forced the family on a three-day road trip to Texas instead of putting us on a plane. I don’t get it either, but I do have a very thorough review for the Higginsville Holiday Inn off Route 49 in Mississippi. As much as I love family time”—I pause for effect—“I can
handle another road trip like this.”
I spend the next five or ten minutes recapping my road trip from hell in all its gory (boring) detail, until my mom peeks her head in the door. “Are you …?” she mouths before taking in a sharp breath. “Never mind. Put that down and come outside with us. Now.”
“Please stand by,” I say robotically to my phone and peek through the window. A few cars line the streets, staying out of our driveway, and my dad and Brendan stand there staring at them.
“Well, that was fast. I should have mentioned this earlier,
but I may have just broken a lot of rules. I’ll give you the full update tonight … if StarWatch doesn’t murder me by then. Wish me luck.”
I stop streaming and leave the room, ignoring the gnawing in my stomach that I’m not ready for whatever’s coming.
The mood shifts when I step outside.
The air-conditioning that cooled me off apparently gave me temperature amnesia, because I’m shocked by the curtain of heat I just dipped under.
Standing on the blacktop driveway by our car, a little stunned, is my dad. He just stares at the street while reporters buzz around their news vans like flies, making cameras appear as if from nowhere.
Mom sighs loudly. We make eye contact, and I can see the strain on her, the tension in her facial expression.
“You should go. I’ll get Dad.” I nod to make her feel confident I can take care of this, and she darts back inside.
I can’t tell my dad’s expression from behind, but I see him go rigid. He’s never been the center of attention, outside of making the announcements as copilot on his flights. And for that, he can hide behind the cockpit. He can’t hide here, where the sun highlights every flaw and accents every doubt.
He had the foresight to wear a clean shirt at least.
“Crap,” Brendan says. “Okay, um. I’m not usually the person who deals with this. I’ll make a call.”
The realization hits me in waves.
I did this.
I broke a national news story.
It was a small act of rebellion, which is not entirely
uncharacteristic of me—like when I slipped past guards at City Hall to attend a press conference to grill the NYC Housing Authority on a mass of broken elevators in their public housing projects.
But that wasn’t for purely selfish reasons. The pang in my gut turns to fire. This is my calling, and I won’t let StarWatch get in the way. Sometimes, you have to take your future into your own hands.
And one way or another, I just did that.
Only, I didn’t think about what that would mean for my family.
“What do you want to do?” I ask Dad. There’s a firmness in my voice that I didn’t know I had in me. “Should I get Mom back out here? Or should we hide inside?”
My shallow breaths start to make me feel light-headed.
Dad turns to me for a second and considers my question as one producer starts her report.
“We’re here at the house of the newest astronaut for Project Orpheus, Calvin Lewis Sr., whose son is widely known thanks to his following on the social media platform FlashFame. Calvin—senior, that is—is assumed to be the final astronaut selected before NASA launches its preparations for Orpheus V. The lucky six astronauts on that mission, poised to be the first humans to set foot on Mars, are still to be determined.”