I was 11-years-old when Star Wars was first released in 1977. My sister, two years younger, and I saw it together. To that point, we’d been raised mostly on princesses of the cartoon variety who sang of the princes they imagined would save them from their dreary lives. On television, we’d watched a genie who couldn’t show her navel and a witch who hoped her daughter wouldn’t inherit her super-human abilities. Both hid their powers from others under the guise of protecting their husbands’ careers.
When Princess Leia — Carrie Fisher — appeared in Star Wars, wearing a white robe that was easily replicated at home with a bed sheet (and then she later transitioned to boys’ clothes), we’d not seen anyone like her before. My sister and I were young enough to believe in her, to believe that, in the not too distant future, women would go to space and lead their nations. In 1977, only one woman, Valentina Tereshkova, had been to space, but she was Soviet, and she’d gone up before I was born. At the time, in the long lag between the Apollo moon missions and the space shuttle’s first launch, the United States wasn’t hurling anyone beyond the atmosphere. Yet Leia Organa offered us a story of what it would be like.
A year after Star Wars hit theaters, NASA included women in an astronaut class for the first time. Six smart, strong women turned into hopeful spacefarers. From that class, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, less than a month after the third Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, was released. In that third film, Princess Leia saves Han Solo from an eternity encased in carbonite, strangles alien slug and crime lord Jabba the Hutt, and wears a golden bikini in an out-of-character, pandering slave scene. By then, I had graduated from high school and was off to college. I was coming of age and trying to figure out how to be a grown-up woman.
When my mother was eleven years old, in 1952, she went to the movie theater to watch Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, in Singing in the Rain. That was five years before Sputnik took to the heavens, the first human-made object to go to space. That makes my mother part of the Silent Generation, a woman who never understood Star Wars but who figured out how to go to law school and be her own kind of warrior. And I am supposedly Gen X, smashed between the Baby Boomers and Millennials. Jen Chaney has a great piece at Vulture about why the deaths this year of Fisher, David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, and even Muhammed Ali and Florence Henderson have hit Generation X particularly hard. Chaney is right: we feel as if we were alive for their whole celebrity lives. At least that’s true for the oldest among Gen X, like me, heard Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust as little kids and who transitioned from high school to college with 1999, Purple Rain and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
Yet, in part because of Princess Leia and Sally Ride, I think of myself not as Gen X, but rather, as Generation Space. I was born in a particular slice of history, between the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the first space shuttle launch in 1981. I was a toddler when people walked on the Moon. Those of us born into Gen Space have never lived in a world in which space travel was not going on. Our first collective tragedy occurred on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart less than two minutes after it left Earth’s surface with a schoolteacher and six other astronauts onboard. The youngest of Generation Space were in kindergarten then and never knew a world without Star Wars. We thought of the world differently because we could look back at it — at humanity — from out there somewhere.
When I was home for the holidays, I saw Rogue One with my sister. She wanted to capture nostalgia by repeating our movie-going of almost forty years ago. We were also reimagining a moment in time when it seemed possible for a woman in white garb to lead an alliance. We left the theater with our hearts warmed by the explanation of how Princess Leia and R2D2 ended up with those blueprints for the Death Star.
At the same time that we were reveling in this nostalgia, Carrie Fisher was on an airplane and her heart was giving out. She died four days later. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, had died only a few weeks earlier. We’ll celebrate the fifty-fifth 55th anniversary of his flight in February. Now Fisher’s mother is gone, too, and my mother and Sally Ride both died of pancreatic cancer in 2012.
Neither Fisher, who was born almost a year before Sputnik, nor Glenn were Generation Space themselves. Instead, their deaths bequeath the future to us. Our hearts ache to see them go. We will remember and miss them for a long time. We are the adults of this world now. I like to think the future is Generation Mars, and Princess Leia remains the future for which we hope.
Anna Leahy is the co-author of Generation Space: A Love Story, due out February 2017 from Stillhouse Press. See more at www.generationspace.com.
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