Bessie & the Space Shuttle

As Bessie left the earth’s atmosphere in the Ares21 space shuttle she couldn’t resist waving at the window, imagining her family in her daughter’s garden waving back, sending her off with balloons that would pop long before they reached the clouds.

She had seen the advert in Chat magazine: ‘Ever thought about space travel? We’re looking for grandmothers to complete the team for our first voyage to the new Mars Colonies. Help the future of the human race, join us!’

A day passed, and Bessie couldn’t stop thinking about it. Standing at her daughter’s back door she gazed up into the sky trying to peel back the blue with her mind, wondering what it would be like to see stars up close. Later that morning she managed to persuade her reluctant granddaughter to help her send her very first email,

The application process had been simple. There was a Zoom interview with a couple of women from Venus Astro Technologies. It had taken a couple of minutes for Bessie to work out where to look and get used to seeing her old face staring back at her, in contrast to the two youthful faces she was talking to. They told her theirs was the first all women space organisation and that they were taking a different approach to selecting their astronauts.

“We need women like you to ensure that the Mars community is built on a solid foundation of love and wisdom.”

Bessie hadn’t heard anything like it. She realised her family still needed her but she felt more like a fixture, a photo to be brought out on special occasions. They didn’t listen to her, not really. She knew that her time at her daughter’s was running out, a few weeks before, she had found a shiny brochure for a care home hiding beneath her daughter’s magazines. Hurtling into space to live out her days seemed a better option than spending her last years staring out of a window. Waiting for her family to visit, only as a matter of duty.

The women on the call had been clear that there would be no returning once the shuttle left earth, that there was a risk of them not even making it past the earth’s atmosphere. She was assured her family would receive a sizable payout on her behalf if that happened.

Bessie had gone shopping for toiletries before leaving the planet and for the first time in years had paused beside the lipsticks… She picked up a scarlet red lipstick called Lovers Kiss – the colour a shock of youth against her hand.

Back in her room, she had traced her mouth with the deep red matte paint and a whisper of memory had appeared in her mind’s eye; her and her friends outside the Cavendish back when she was still called Elizabeth, hurriedly putting on her big sister’s stolen red lipstick before they went in.

Most of Bessie’s training would take place at the Venus Astro Base Camp where she would meet the other grandmothers over video call. Every afternoon at 3pm all ten of them dialed in to speak to each other.

They came from all over the country, different races and backgrounds, soon they were chatting like old friends, the excitement of their adventure punctuating their conversations with exclamation marks.

Their various dialects overlapped in conversations, tying together ten very different lives that had been thrown together in an adventure that seemed too strange to Bessie for it to be real.

As the weeks went on Bessie found herself ignoring the beige and muted colours of her usual wardrobe and choosing bright colours to go with her red lipstick – wearing jewellery she only ever wore on special occasions. She even noticed she was walking differently, proudly saying “good morning” to strangers and, to her surprise, being warmly greeted in return.

In the days before she left for base camp Bessie was given the go ahead to tell her family. That Sunday lunch she had interrupted the din of their conversation and calmly explained to everyone that she was going to Mars.

There had been silence, excepting a giggle from her granddaughter and disbelief from everyone else; she even heard her son in law mutter something about dementia. With a confidence that Bessie had never recognised in herself, she presented a slide show that Venus Astro had put together about the journey they were taking.

Then came the arguments. Accusations flew around the table, daughter accusing her husband of making her Mum feel unwanted in their home, grandson saying that she was too old to be making decisions, son saying Venus Astro was taking advantage of old women. She let them get on with it, surer than ever she was making the right choice.

Soon word got out and Bessie and the other women found themselves at the centre of a media storm. Newspapers were calling her and her fellow travellers the Space Nanas, she even found herself on TV speaking to Lorraine Kelly. The street that she had grown up in threw a huge party the day before she left. She spent the afternoon holding hands with her children and grandchildren; who proudly showed her off to their friends and neighbours. Everyone wanted to wish her well. Bessie could never have imagined such a grand goodbye.

Looking at Earth from the Ares21 space shuttle Bessie didn’t feel sad, she felt in wonder at the life she had lived there, all of the twists and turns leading her to, finally, feeling the universe at her fingertips.

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Illustration by Elise Boath

She picked up a scarlet red lipstick called Lovers Kiss – the colour a shock of youth against her hand

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