Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Last Shuttle Flight

Tomorrow morning, at 5:56am Eastern time, the shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to land in Florida. The last shuttle. It does make me sad, since the space shuttle has been a part of my life for quite a while. So I thought I'd write a blog post about it.

When I was a sophomore in high school, living overseas in Germany, I took physics. I loved that class, and I loved my teacher, Mrs. Smothers. She made things very interesting, and I loved all the experiments we got to do. I still have quite clear memories of some of them - the water wave tank, the portable planetarium that took up the entire classroom, basic mechanics experiments in the hallways. That's probably why I ended up majoring in physics in college. I was also very proud of my teacher since she signed up for the very first Teacher in Space program and was selected as one of 2 teachers to represent American teachers in Europe. At this level of the selection process, 2 teachers from each state, plus 2 from various overseas locations (teaching in American schools), were chosen to come for interviews and testing and all. She had little hope that she would get any further, due to physical limitations, but she was so excited to have gotten that far. She wrote in my little signature book at the end of the school year that she hoped to wave to me from space soon! Due to her participation in this program, I became interested in the space program as well.

Mrs. Smothers didn't get any farther in the selection process, for which I was grateful when, the following year, the Challenger Disaster occurred, with the first teacher in space on board. We lived in Oklahoma that year, my junior year, having moved back to the States the previous summer. I was home from school sick that day, when my dad called and told us we better turn on the tv. We watched the news, stunned.

I still kept my interest in space strong. The following summer we moved to Issaquah, Washington, as my dad retired from the Air Force, and I began my senior year of high school. I remember making a model of a space station out of Legos for my current affairs class. I used different colored Legos for different parts of the station - life support, propulsion, etc. All this was because NASA was talking about building a permanent space station. I also studied astronomy that year as an independent study, since I had already taken physics.

When I started college, I decided to major in physics and astronomy, as well as music - my other love. It took me 5 years, but I still never could choose between the sciences and music. Then we got a new music minister at our church up there in Renton, Washington, who just happened to have a brother who had just been selected as an astronaut. I made sure to meet him.  ;-)

I spent a few years wandering between potential careers, trying out astronomy in grad school as a precursor to becoming an astronaut myself, burning out and coming back to music and more artistic pursuits, then jumping into librarianship so I could read all those books which were my other passion. I realized I could combine some of these interests, and took a 6-week unpaid science library internship in Houston, Texas, at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, next door to Johnson Space Center. My music minister's astronaut brother found me a jeep to borrow for those 6 weeks. A jeep which belonged to an astronaut who just happened to be training in Russia for the year. It was a stick shift, and I didn't know how to drive a stick shift, but I learned the basics and took really, really good care of that jeep!

I also made an interesting discovery while filing newspaper clippings at the library. There was a field called space robotics. I had never heard of such a thing before, but I was fascinated, and realized that maybe I still could become an astronaut if I got a PhD in space robotics.

At the end of my internship, my astronaut friend was scheduled to launch on the shuttle, STS-69, and my family was invited. We went, and got to sit in the VIP viewing area and, after a few delays, watched my friend launch into space aboard the shuttle.

I have no words to describe that experience.

Let me just say that my desire to become an astronaut increased significantly.

When I returned home from my internship, I researched space robotics graduate programs and started applying. I got accepted to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA - the premier school for robotics. I learned computer programming really quickly, and began to program robots to explore space. I found the professors who had connections to NASA and worked for them. I volunteered to advise a high school robotics team, funded by NASA Headquarters. I picked a thesis topic relevant to space exploration, and got to travel to the high Canadian arctic and to Antarctica. I learned how to fly planes and got my private pilot's license. I went skydiving. I got to go down to Florida for another launch, driving all the way from Pennsylvania with my former music minister's family (who had taken a new job in PA). I went down to Houston for another internship, this time at Johnson Space Center itself. My astronaut friend took me to meet Duane Ross, the guy who selects all the new astronauts. I began applying to be an astronaut, even though I didn't have my PhD and wasn't completely qualified yet.

And I tried to learn how to scuba dive. Scuba diving is required for astronaut candidates. I didn't know how to swim, but I figured I better learn if I wanted to become an astronaut.

It didn't work. I freak out underwater, I discovered, and this greatly dimmed my enthusiasm. I was also becoming more interested in space robotics as a career in itself, and not just a stepping stone to being an astronaut. I was enjoying working as a roboticist at NASA. I was enjoying the opportunity to do robotics research in beautifully extreme and remote locations. Space is cool, but Earth is a pretty fascinating place to explore too.

I did take swimming lessons the next fall, but my aspirations had subtly altered. I graduated with my PhD and went to work at Johnson Space Center, getting to know multiple astronauts and getting to do lots of cool space robotics. I stopped applying to be an astronaut, because I was pretty happy with things the way they were right then. I met a guy at my church who also worked at NASA, and we got engaged.

I usually cut my hair myself, with just a plain long hair style, but I planned to get a professional cut a few months before my wedding. The day this was scheduled also happened to be the day a shuttle was supposed to land. In many parts of the country, most people don't even know when the shuttle is up or down, but in Houston, it's always on the local news. Even those of us who work at NASA don't always pay too much attention to when launches or landings happen - at least back then - but we usually know approximately when they are. So that Saturday morning, when I got up to get ready for my hair cut, I realized the shuttle should be landing any minute now and turned on NASA TV to watch.

There were no pictures of the shuttle. I frowned, looked at the clock, and turned up the volume. There should have been pictures of the shuttle high in the atmosphere, gliding down through the clouds. I checked the landing time on the computer and then looked at my clock again. There should have been pictures of the shuttle on the ground. There weren't. Columbia didn't make it back.

This time, the emotions were much, much stronger than with Challenger. This time, I worked at NASA. This time, I had actually met and talked to one of the astronauts on board that shuttle. This time, I couldn't stop crying.

My fiance and I talked over the phone for quite a while as the events unfolded. He convinced me to go ahead and get my hair cut, and we made it through the day. My fiance was getting new carpet put in his house, and I went over there and we stood watching the news on tv as the carpet layers worked around us. We went back to work the next week, and everyone was somber. Hundreds of volunteers drove the few hours north to help locate, identify and sort through the debris of Columbia over the next few weeks. Thousands stood in the mall area on-site when the president came to speak at our memorial service. Thousands stood silent during the ceremony.

NASA survived, and we survived, and the shuttle program survived. And tomorrow is the last landing, may it be a safe one. My life is so intertwined with so many memories and images of the space shuttle that it is hard to imagine not having any more launches and landings. The course of my life, and the unfolding of my own personal events, has been changed and affected by the space shuttle. I have made sure to have my young children watch all the launches and landings that I could over the last few years. I don't know if they'll remember much, being so young, but all 3 of them were mesmerized by the most recent - the last - shuttle launch. They count down from 10 with the announcer, they raise their hands and shout "Blast off!".  My middle child, just 3 years old, has said several times that she wants to go into space and be an astronaut. I hope they remember some of this, over the next few years without any shuttle launches. I hope they are still inspired to explore space.

But I imagine this is how others felt when the Apollo program ended so many years ago. Many years passed, after the last mission to the Moon, before the space shuttle program began in earnest. In fact, the Apollo program ended when I was just about the same age as my own children are now. I was born just 8 days after the first human stepped foot on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong, July 20th, 1969. Exactly 42 years ago today.

I don't remember seeing any of the Apollo launches, but I still developed a strong interest in space. Who knows what my children will witness over the next twenty or thirty years? Hopefully plenty to inspire, plenty to encourage, plenty to remember. Hopefully not the last, but the first of many flights to come.

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