Growing up, my biggest fear was outer space.
It began during the summer before fourth grade, when my mother signed me up for Science Adventures Camp, held in an elementary school-turned-administrative building. The building felt lopsided, with stacks of cardboard boxes spilling over outdated tile floors. But one of my mother’s friends had recommended the camp, telling her that it was a highly popular program and was bound to fill up the day registration opened. With the competitive streak pounding in her veins, Mom marched over to the building at 8:00 in the morning to sign me up. She was first in line, of course. In her mind, the program was a natural first step in my career in, well, science.
I have to admit, the early days of the program were surreal. I remember a counselor clipped me into an orange chair that simulated a rocket’s take off. A photo was snapped— I had a goofy, slightly anxious smile on my face as the chair threw me side-to-side. Nevertheless, I felt invincible. The next week, backpacked and tumbling, my classmates and I launched our own tiny rockets in the overgrown fields behind the building. One kid’s rocket never launched, and he stumbled off, tears littering his cheeks. Meanwhile, I watched my rocket simmer into the sky. I was unstoppable.
During the final week of camp, however, my mindset flipped a switch. Literally. I was assigned to a group of five campers, and our task was to fly to the moon. I’m still not sure if the big space shuttle at the camp was fake or, according to rumors circulating the premises, donated by someone who worked for NASA. All I knew was that I had the role of engineer, with the grueling task of flipping all the switches in the rocket from red to green, but only after the countdown from ten was over. If I didn’t flip all the switches in time, our mission would fail. I clambered into the shuttle with the other kids and the darkness enveloped us. I was overcome with terror, imagining all the horrible things that would happen if we crashed and were whisked out into space. I had no concept of oxygen deprivation or extreme pressure, but I knew that space was dark and endless. While my mind reeled, the counselors wished us luck and slid the door shut. The last lingering beams of light — and my final connection to earth — disappeared with them.
Poorly- developed graphics of outer space popped up on the screen, and my heart stumbled over itself. The other kids in my group seemed unfazed, excited even, and I couldn’t fathom why. Suddenly, the countdown clock appeared. Every decreasing number was accompanied by a jolting beep, and the kids counted along in a sing-song fashion. I stared, bug-eyed, as the numbers ran out, signaled by a horrible ringing noise. Eyes glazed over with fear, I felt my tiny fingers trip over the switches. I reacted to every red light on the dashboard, willing it with my mind and, more unsuccessfully, with my fingers, to glow green.
Of course, we didn’t fail or crash. None of the teams failed or crashed. The program was set up to allow for a successful trip to the moon, but my pre-fourth grade self was convinced that I had dodged imminent death by a second or two.
I felt my stomach rumble. Suddenly, the shuttle was filled with a bright, un-moon-like glare. A silhouette peered out at our crew of novice astronauts, and I held my breath. Maybe the aliens are blind, I hoped. If we’re quiet, they’ll go away. To my horror, a boy next to me burst out in a triumphant shout. His voice seemed to whirl around our spaceship, the last syllable stretching out like a slinky down a staircase. I clutched the desk behind me, convinced that we were dead meat.
The door crept open for what seemed like hours. An orange-tinged light flooded the room, the alien silhouettes had multiplied, and I prepared myself to be vaporized or abducted or eaten. And then, something unexpected occurred: I saw the glint of teeth from one of the aliens. A smile.
“Congratulations!” Our counselors’ bright blue shirts came into view. “You landed!” I let out a sigh of relief, realizing that the orange light was actually coming from the cafeteria, and, thankfully, it was lunchtime. I darted out of the shuttle to grab my purple lunchbox. Nothing felt as joyful as snapping open the Ziploc bag to reveal my mom’s turkey and cheese sandwich. I bit into the bread, filled with the exhilaration of returning to earth.
Although I’ve accumulated more realistic fears in my lifetime than forced flights to the moon, this anxiety about endlessness has manifested itself in other forms, the Internet being the most relevant of them. Its ceaselessness is like galaxies piled on galaxies, and I find myself overwhelmed by a single blog post. When I write in a place like this for everyone to see, it’s like risking my whole being to the wormhole of the Internet, just waiting to get sucked into something that I can’t fully understand. Or control.
Maybe we all feel this way, constantly trying to figure out how to exist on Internet platforms. There’s your clever Twitter self, witty but brief. There’s your perfectly curated Instagram profile, beautiful and fun but not completely honest either. There’s Snapchat, just glimpses of a life you want your high school ex or acquaintances to see. We’ve tried to orient ourselves in the boundless and puzzling Web, but we’ve forgotten— there’s no gravity here. And so, we live in fragments of ourselves, desperately trying to find a way back to earth.
by Danielle Fusaro