Had he just driven 53.5 miles south, he could have ended up at my house. Instead, Richard Branson sped into the sky, keeping a good deal of us in southern New Mexico, and around the world, captive to a livestream from Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic.
I hadn't planned to tune in that morning. Breakfast at our house, particularly on the weekends, is not a ritual to be tinkered with. However, it's not sacred enough to not browse social media while drinking coffee, and so I drank and got sucked in by the hype online, starting with a local television livestream [Spaceport America is about an hour up the road].
The kids crowded around me to stare into my phone, so we moved into the living room.
My kids watched dutifully. My son is somewhat enchanted by the idea of rockets, less so than with cars, but it's still novel to see an aircraft and dream about the idea of space. It's a vastness that levels kids and adults alike, perhaps why there can be an enduring love that spans the time between a wide-eyed toddler staring at the moon and an adult bracing against G-forces and in training to become an astronaut.
The live feed cut out when Branson hit weightlessness, but what he said later, before he unbuckled to join his somersaulting crew, was this: "To all you kids out there — I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars. Now I'm an adult in a spaceship ... If we can do this, just imagine what you can do."
What an adult thing to say.
It's not imagination that kids lack. It's an opportunity to break the barriers of not just sound, but of ZIP codes. Our state, New Mexico, ranked 49th in child well-being based on data gathered before the coronavirus pandemic. The year before, our state was 50th. New Mexico Voices for Children partners with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to release the annual Kids Count report that tracks 16 metrics of children's access to education, health and economic and social stability at home. New Mexico has ranked at or near the bottom since 2012. [Arkansas ranks 39th overall; see arkansasonline.com/726annie.]
It's true; it's not up to Branson to singlehandedly fix that, or even Virgin Galactic. But when you aim to give a path of inspiration, you shouldn't set it out in the desert with no way to achieve it.
However, I had a sliver of hope. Branson, during the slick intro video, said that they'd have an announcement when they landed. Was he going to fund a high school for the best and brightest youngsters to train to be astronauts in the nearby poverty-laced town? Was he going to build a research or manufacturing plant in my city down the road that would bring high-end jobs and keep the engineers that we train at our universities in our state?
No. Branson's announcement was how we could donate to a charity and get a chance to win a seat — and one more for someone you love — on one of his flights.
Perhaps that was the lesson for the kids, that luck or money are the main ways to propel their dreams. And, that those who can build a larger table for everyone are the same ones who will suggest that those standing outside should just dream bigger and imagine more.
Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma(,) and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate.