THE ADMIRAL AND THE AIRWOMAN Wendy with her dad, Vice Adm. William P. Lawrence. Behind them is one of the helicopters Wendy piloted in the Navy.
Picture the fastest roller coaster you’ve ever been on. Now the picture going 10 times faster. So fast that the g-forces compress your chest and make it hard to breathe. Minutes later, the bright light of day has changed to the darkness of space. You’re still accelerating, approaching 18,000 miles per hour. You’re near the outer limits of Earth’s atmosphere. If you unbuckle your seat belt, you’ll float right off your chair.
That’s what it was like for me on March 2, 1995, the first time I rocketed into space as a Space Shuttle astronaut. I went on to fly three more shuttle missions, including docking with the International Space Station. And on every one of them, it felt as if my dad were right there with me, even though his dream of going into space had ended decades before.
I was 35 years old the day of that first takeoff. It was the culmination of a dream I’d nurtured since watching the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Back then, girls like 10-year-old me had no hope of becoming an astronaut.
Somehow I held on to my dream. And in many ways, I owe my perseverance to the man I wished could have been beside me as I stared out the shuttle window at the awe-inspiring vastness of space. My father, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. William Lawrence.
My relationship with my dad was complicated. It was also the most important influence on who I was to become in life.
I want to tell you about that relationship for two reasons. One, I want you to know my dad the way I knew him. He was a man of indomitable will, unshakable faith in Jesus and unwavering commitment to duty and country.
He was also imperfect, as am I. We had to rebuild a relationship from scratch starting during my teen years. I inherited Dad’s personality, and he and I sometimes disagreed. Some of the biggest lessons I learned from him came from watching him deal with setbacks.
The biggest lesson I learned is that no family relationship is beyond the reach of God’s grace.
People remember my father as a Navy pilot who survived six years in the notorious Hanoi Hilton military prison in North Vietnam. Dad had been shot down during a mission in 1967 and declared missing in action. My family feared he was dead. I was not quite eight years old.
While in prison, Dad was tortured, including being thrown in a six-foot box called the Black Hole of Calcutta. Despite that, he became a leader among his fellow prisoners, helping devise a code to communicate by tapping on cell walls and floors. The famous tap code.
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