Many people have “Where Were You When…?” dates. These are the dates that you will always have an indelible picture in your mind of where you were. My first is January 28, 1986, the day of the Challenger disaster. This is the first real experience with tragedy and I remember the experience of that day as if it were yesterday. I know that’s a weird way to start a post about NASA meaning hope, but I want to make the point about how important NASA and the Space Shuttle Program have been to me.
NASA is an agency that brings the aspirations of our nation to the forefront. It’s about coming together to do what can’t be done now. NASA is about living up our promise and pushing our limits. NASA is about doing things, “… not because they are easy, but because they are hard” as President Kennedy put it.
For my entire life, NASA and the Space Shuttle in particular, have meant hope to me. It has represented the ability of our nation and people around the world to break the bonds of gravity and get off our planet. For a child of divorce, getting up and away from the gravity of every day life meant a lot to me. As a child, my coping mechanism was taking on the job to keep everybody else happy, but when I was thinking about space (or some other things) I was able to rise above the every day of my life and think about the pure possibilities presented by life. If humans could get to a place where even the law of gravity didn’t apply, then I could imagine a place where it wasn’t my job to make sure everyone else was happy, where what I wanted wasn’t important, in short, a place where I mattered. The fact that Astronauts are national heroes made it even better. I could imagine myself getting away from the gravity of earth and when I came back, I would be the hero… As I grew up, I began to take NASA and the Space Shuttle program for granted. As designed, the program became routine for me. There were Shuttles flying on a regular basis and it seemed far away from my daily life.
Then came February 1, 2003, my second “Where Were You When…?” date. I knew that the STS-107 mission had launched on my birthday, but didn’t think much about it. I was at the beginning of a very busy time in my job and was completely focused on that reality, not that of the seven explorers circling above my head. February 1, 2003 was a Saturday morning. I was headed in to work to try and stay on top of things. As I drove the 42 freeway miles between my home and my office, I turned on the radio and they were taking about the landing of Columbia. I figured it would be a short segment, describing the touchdown and then we would get back to regular programming. In truth, I wasn’t much listening, instead, I was thinking about the day’s work. I did, however notice that regular programming had not returned and Columbia’s landing was the still the subject of the conversation. I began to listen more closely, and realizing what had happened, I was truly taken aback. For the second time in my life, Astronauts had been lost in flight.
Between 1986 and 2003, technology had advanced greatly, so I got in to work and started doing all the research I could on the STS-107 mission, and kept up closely with the news. More important than that, my interest in NASA, the Space Shuttle Program, and space in general was rekindled. The new technology meant that when flights resumed in 2005, I was able to watch them from my desk and download a great deal of information about the mission. I was able to reconnect with the program and NASA, which was a wonderful thing.
As 2005 turned to 2006 and the second return to flight mission occurred, I was able to get more and more information about the program, watch the missions live on my computer, and feel a similar sense of wonder about space travel as I had when I was a kid. The years went on and my interest continued and grew. By the time the STS-125 mission occurred in 2009, I was a full on space geek. I was able to witness the law of gravity being broken in real-time, for the entire duration of each Space Shuttle mission. I was also able to learn more about the program and the people who made it work.
When I joined Twitter in October of 2008, little did I know that It would lead me to attend a Space Shuttle launch, visit Mission Control and Johnson Space Center (twice) and find a community of space geeks across the world, just like me. I’ve learned that space doesn’t just mean manned space flight. It means journeys to other planets to observe and explore the surface. It means getting outside our Solar System and putting human existence into a universal perspective, as Carl Sagan did with the famous Pale Blue Dot photo taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from Earth.
Voyager 1 remains the furthest human built object away from earth. It is approximately 11,061,750,600 miles from Earth today. Even more amazing is the fact that we can still communicate with it.
For me, NASA means an escape from the gravity of life and Earth. It means a community of friends who shares an interest and love for space. It means human achievement that I can share with my son and daughter. For me, NASA means hope.