Why DO we go to space? I opened my Facebook this morning to find the newsfeed from a page that I liked, Science Is A Verb, posted a YouTube video of a reporter speaking about why people first started exploring space, what we have accomplished in space exploration, and where we are headed outside of the Big Blue Marble in the future. I heard him, but everything he was saying isn’t what I experienced while at NASA. As his lips moved and faded pictures of Mars landers and space shuttles glided by his backside as words were formed, I realized that at one time in my life I was in the place where he was standing as he reported, his image captured and preserved for the world to see as a source from PBS.
There are two types of people in the world, those who have worked at NASA, and those who have not. People who have worked at NASA do not photo credit Wikipedia; they have their own extensive library of photos recently sent back from the Kepler or the Hubble and ping their buddies at Ames or the JPL at the very least twice a week for new photos of the miracles shot back from space to humans still on Earth. The Hubble has orbited the Earth nearly 110,000 times and has witnessed water spouting in a volcano from Europa, discovered Earth-like planets, and it’s launch in 1990 would have made Galileo proud. Shoot, as an American it makes me proud. And that feeling of accomplishment, of looking at the universe through the lens of a gigantic telescope sent by man to view the world he cannot see close up is nothing short of miraculous. That is the feeling that keeps man exploring, makes the team at NASA cohesive, and helps countries explore together, with no boundaries, no restrictions, no war. You see, there are not many places designated as war zone free research stations, but the Moon and Antarctica are. All in the name of exploration.
So once upon a time I had this friend. I will call her Sue. When I was accepted into the Human Research team at NASA, she was sour. Being a successful chemist, working on her masters program, she didn’t see the logic of NASA and verbalized this to me each time we were together. This was quite a bit. I viewed her as a very good friend. We shopped, ate, drank adult libations, and attended out of town events together: like Las Vegas out of town events. But, each time we were together, her verbose opinionated slurs of how the government needs to spend money on this or that, and scratch the space program got me a bit uncomfortable. Sue hurled me into the unemployment world each time she spoke of such things. Her boisterous, I mean LOUD boisterous opinions, should have been grating on my nerves. But it wasn’t grating and it didn’t get me into a state of upheaval. Just because she didn’t understand didn’t give me grounds to try and help her understand. I could speak of medical research all day long that was conducted on the International Space Station and how it might one day, and has helped my little brother who suffers from diabetes, but she still could not see the use in space exploration. Sue and I are no longer friends. I don’t have to try and prove anything to her. She can still rant and rage about space exploration, but now I don’t have to hear it. And hopefully there aren’t too many people in the world like her.
Just being with astronauts that have left Earth, listening to their stories, and finding that there is fascination in each word they speak, is awe inspiring. The little stories from those who have landed in a Russian Soyuz capsule and in a space shuttle and have told the differences in the landings. Those who explore dare to speak about the magnificence of a space view of the Earth, the fascination felt at the beauty, the way space sucks you in and begs you to stay. Working with those from the Apollo era to develop my NASA educational products, listening to them tell the story of the first lunar landing and how it was like threading a needle to get the capsule to land ON the Moon, and when it did successfully, the thrill of knowing that you used your slide rule to get calculations many miles from your desk. Working a National Science Teacher’s Convention alongside Buzz Aldrin and after signing posters, taking back my Sharpie pen from him and placing it in a Ziploc bag to keep forever. Working an National Education Association conference with Barbara Morgan after her return from space and giving my autograph alongside hers on the educational materials I developed for her ride into space.
Traipsing across Scotland to the tune of Guinness and fiddles is still the highlight of my life. Listening to Bruce McCandless tell, in a compact black taxi with his wife and I, about the Manned Maneuvering Unit he rode untethered in space and was and still is the only human to have experienced space not strapped to anything in particular. Sitting on a houseboat in Loc Loman listening to Joan Higginbotham tell stories of her family and then the next month or so watching her ride to the ISS in a space shuttle; watching Leroy Chiao come down from the ISS after 3 months and run up a mountainside in Glasgow during the filming of the NASA SciFiles. Listening to Chris Hadfield play the guitar with Pinky Nelson and his wife celebrating a wedding anniversary. Talking with Nick Patrick about his time in flight. Filming Alvin Drew in my show on the Royal Research Ship Discovery, namesake for the Space Shuttle Discover before he logged flight hours on a STS.
So the thrill of meeting with Suni Williams about the NASA Train Like an Astronaut program is still in my head like it was yesterday. And the thrill of the whole experience won’t soon rust away from my memories. I find myself lost in these memories when I see YouTube clips like the one this morning from PBS. And those who have worked at NASA and those who haven’t are distant. The mission of getting a human from Earth in a tin can and back safely bring together thousands of people yearly in the name of space exploration, something Sue and millions of others can’t understand. But I can.
Today, Lord, help me be thankful for memories. Let me see the beauty in what is stored in my head, and let me learn from the past and move on in the bright future you have embedded in your awesome plan for me. Help me tell the world of your greatness, just as vast as space, and miraculous as the pictures we see of your handiwork. Lord bless the astronauts on their missions in space, and give them guidance through their spacewalks. Help them help mankind in science exploration. In Jesus name, Amen.