by Jeff Cunningham
In 1991, the space shuttle Endeavour, last of the line, was completed and taxied out from the OPF (Orbital Processing Facility, the garage where they kept the shuttles and changed the oil) to the VAB (Vehicular Assembly Building, where they lift it on end and connect it to the big orange fuel tank and two white booster rockets). After that, it would head out to pad 39 for its maiden voyage. In the meantime, NASA decided to celebrate by turning this brief, normally routine drive from one building to another into a parade.
All the technicians, wrench-turners and other facility staff got to be in it. Utility vehicles, such as mobile cranes, cherry pickers and hazard trucks were decorated with streamers to be the floats. Employees were encouraged to invite their families and children to this special occasion, and a grand time was had by all.
Well, almost all. My uncle was an engineer for the company that made the main engines and brought my family in, and all I remember as a little kid was how hot it was that day and how bored I was. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Then, as many a hard-boiled detective has begun their story, “she came waltzing into my life.”
Gleaming the purest white, Endeavour was undeniably the queen of the ball that day. Anyone could see the landing gear, but to me, I could have sworn she was floating through the air. She seemed to have this inner joy that she could hardly contain and wanted to just burst for joy, like a bride coming down the aisle on her wedding day.
Endeavour’s starboard wingtip passed within a yard of my desperately outstretched hand. I didn’t know where she was going, but I wanted to go with her so bad. That day, I swore as solemn a vow as a five-year-old can swear that some day, I would go into space aboard Endeavour.
Fifteen years later, I was a jaded wreck of a young adult. I had family problems at home, money was tight, and I had little idea nor direction of where to go with my life — at least, that is, beyond continuing to chase the lady in white that I’d fallen in love with as a child. I tried and failed several classes in my struggle to get a degree in aerospace engineering (“rocket science”). Then, there was the time that I found myself homeless for a week because somebody else felt like being spiteful to my family and I. On days like those, I feared that I’d never catch up to her and had lost her for good.
It was around that time that I went through a collection of DVD’s that I’d inheirited and randomly chose Serenity to watch one night (yes, all you purists out there, I did it backwards, but not intentionally). A few days later, I found out through the Chivalry Today podcast (which all of you should check out when you’re not writing #ElonMusk ) that there was also a television program called Firefly, from which the film was based. I was bored and bummed out, so I said to myself, “The movie was pretty cool; a show that’s anything like it would probably be decent.”
I remember being underwhelmed by the much slower pace of the pilot as I watched it streamed online. Then, the next week, I was pleasantly surprised by Captain Reynolds’ handling of a certain hired muscle named Crow, and was forced to concede in the face of incontrovertible evidence that Malcolm Reynolds could beat the everlasting crap out of Han Solo. On that alone, I scraped together the last of my wages from the last temp job I’d held to purchase the DVD set, and it did not disappoint. That same night, when Joss Whedon’s masterful writing lulled me into a false sense of security into thinking that I already knew how the climactic sword-fight in the episode “Shindig” would end, then suddenly turned all convention on its head in a crowning moment of awesome that you simply need to view to understand, I knew that I was a fan.
The next evening, I insisted that the whole family watch it together. My mother was being laid off from her job the slow and painful way, my brother was working a thankless minimum wage job, and my sister was being picked on in school. The good thing about being in such low spirits, though, is that they didn’t put up much of a fight — and, you know what? Ten dollars for a 14-episode DVD set turned out to be the best investment we ever made. At the end of “Jaynestown,” our mother declared that Firefly was officially on “permanent syndication” in our household. Yeah, it’s considered sappy and ridiculous to say that something like this brought a family together, but nothing’s a cliche when it happens to you, and its central message of perseverance in the face of adversity was what we needed to hear. At the end of any one of the many frustrating days we had, when it seemed that all hope was lost that I’d ever go into space or that we’d even just be able to make rent, we’d just repeat Captain Mal’s mantra aloud and remind each other that “we’re still flying.”
Then, one night, I was unwinding alone after classes and came to the episode “Out of Gas.” The episode ends in a flashback that reveals how Mal came to be the owner of his ship: A young and lost Malcolm Reynolds is being led around a wide prairie vista home to many used ships in varying stages of decrepitude. The salesman accompanying him is trying to extol to him the virtues of one nondescript-looking hulk, but Mal’s attention and gaze are transfixed and utterly captivated by a lone, forgotten ship in a corner, the vessel that he would name Serenity.
I wept and bawled like a child.
I cried long and hard because I knew, I knew exactly how he felt, what it’s like to fall in love like that — because so help me, I did fall in love that day long ago with Endeavour. I fell in love with her with a love so deep and profound that it defies words. It was a love that shatters a man, then reforges him anew.
I went back to my final exams with renewed purpose, because I’d be damned before I let unprofessional, couldn’t-care-less professors “take the sky from me.” I aced the final exam for rocket propulsion with flying colors. I never got the actual grade for the test itself, but I have reason to believe that I may have even gotten a perfect score.
Mine was a bittersweet victory, however. Before I could graduate, it was announced that the shuttle program was ending before I could ever have the chance to keep my word that I’d vowed to Endeavour. I’d consoled myself that I’d just be a part of whatever replaced it, but that was not meant to be, either. The layoffs hit, and “entry-level job” became an archaic and outdated term.
I should say as an aside that I at least saw Endeavour again. Kind friends of mine who worked for NASA got me in for the last tour that they ever had of the OPF, and I found myself suddenly re-united with her without being prepared for it. I’d always thought that I’d say to her “Hey, remember me? I told you I’d be back. Let’s go!”. All I could get out in the end was a barely whispered “I’m sorry…I let you down.”
To this day, I know people who worked in NASA and the industry for over 30 years who are now working in call centers for the same $9 an hour that I earn. At first I was angry and despaired, but eventually…I got better. You see, I’m okay, and a lot of other people are okay or are going to be okay, because we’re Browncoats (fans of Firefly). We learned from the example of characters like Mal Reynolds and Zoe Washburne how to pick ourselves up again. I remain firm in my belief that Firefly‘s only true failing is that it was simply ahead of its time. If it had premiered in, say, 2009 instead of 2002, it would never have been cancelled and would enjoy even greater popularity than it does now, because its message would have been more relevant to audiences today.
Why am I a Browncoat after all this time? Why do I have an unhealthy attachment to a television show ten years later? It’s secause the crew of Serenity helped me find closure and make my peace with the lady in white twenty years later. I am a Browncoat and I encourage others to be because the show’s message is what people need to hear, now more than ever before: That when you lose everything, you continue on. When there’s no way out, you “do the job.” When you’ve lost everything, you’re “still flying,” and no matter what, no matter what, no one can take the sky from you.
I will never use my degree. That can’t be changed, and no one can do anything about that. As Shepherd Book counseled his fellow crew, though, “if you can’t do something smart, do something right.” In only a year or two, there will once more be astronauts flying into space, and this time, aboard a ship that won’t be held back by terminally ill budgets or even a cynical public. This much I know, that I love that ship despite the fact that I’ve never seen her and I never thought that I’d love like that again, because she’s already brought hope and healing to my heart and to so many others who thought things would never be all right again, and that that wonderful, incredible ship that will carry the hopes and dreams of so many should be named Serenity!
On this, the 10th anniversary of Firefly, I can think of no better way to honor the ship that inspired me as a child and the ship that gave me strength and tenacity as an adult than to so name the ship that will give us all a chance for a future. Join us and together, let’s take back the sky.