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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Staring Into The Eyes Of Space

Before I launch into my weekly Thursday Confession, I wanted to take the time to remember a woman who recently passed away.

On July 23, the world said farewell to Sally Kristen Ride, who died at the age of 61 from pancreatic cancer.

In her sixty-one years of life, nobody could have possibly imagined just how much of an impact she would have in the world of space exploration and science. Upon graduating from Stanford University with a master's degree and a Ph.D. in physics, she became one of 8,000 people to apply for NASA's space program, and was accepted into the program in 1978. Shortly before her first space flight, she was put under the microscope by the media, and Sally remembered being asked some rather demeaning questions by the press, including questions asking her if she cried when things weren't going well.

Of course, we all know that Sally Ride proved her naysayers wrong.

When Sally started at NASA, she began work serving as the ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for the second and third Space Shuttle flights, and held a key role in the development of the Space Shuttle's robot arm.

On June 16, 1983, Sally Ride made American history when she went on her first space exploration mission as a member of the crew on Space Shuttle Challenger for STS-7. Although she was not the first woman in space (she was preceded by Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya), she was the first American woman to go into outer space. On that mission, Ride became the first woman to use the robot arm in space, and the first to use the arm to retrieve a satellite.

The following year, Sally took part in her second space flight, also aboard the Challenger. On that mission, she ended up logging a total of 343 hours in space. She was in training for her third mission when the January 28, 1986 Challenger explosion occurred, and shortly after the tragedy was named to the Rogers Commission Report and headed its subcommittee on operations. After the investigation, Ride was assigned to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and upon arriving, she went to work leading NASA's first strategic planning effort, founded NASA's Office of Exploration and wrote a report entitled “Leadership and America's Future in Space”.

In 1987, Ride began working at Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control. Two years later, she began teaching physics at the University of California, San Diego, and became director of the California Space Institute. Over the next few years until her death, she wore many hats. She led the public outreach efforts of the ISS EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKAM projects. She founded Sally Ride Science in 2001, a program which created science programs and publications for elementary and middle school students, with special emphasis for young girls looking to enter the space program. She served on the board during the accident investigation in 2003 involving Space Shuttle Columbia. She even wrote (or co-wrote) five books about space exploration geared towards children who had an interest in studying space.

I would call that a life well lived. Doing something that you love doing, and dedicating your life to it.

Although Sally Ride has passed away, her contributions will forever be remembered by so many people, and her name will forever be immortalized in the history of NASA.

And now, for my Thursday Confession.

THURSDAY CONFESSION #30: Believe it or not, there was a time in my life where I wanted to pursue a career in space exploration.

I know it seems quite hard to believe, but it happens to be true. Do you remember a few months ago, when I did a blog entry on the set of Charlie Brown 'Cyclopedias that I owned in my youth? If you can't recall that entry, I've posted the link to it HERE to refresh your memory. Anyway, there were fifteen different volumes to the encyclopedia set, and each volume dealt with a different subject.

I had the 1990 edition of the set, and of that set, do you know which two volumes were read the most at my household?

They were books #3 and #9...both books were on space exploration and the study of moons and planets.

I loved to read about space, and I often pretended to build Lego spaceships, zooming through endless galaxies around my living room at home. I can't explain it, but I was always fascinated by space. I even remember being in third grade, and not really caring so much about science class...until we got to the unit on space. Then, and only then, was I excited about science. I just thought it would be so cool to see what it was like in outer space. What would it be like to experience an environment with zero gravity? What would it feel like to float through the air in a carefree manner? What would Earth look like from millions of miles away? These were all questions that I asked myself constantly when I was younger.

When I was in school, I had a dream of becoming an astronaut. I even think that I wrote a paper in second grade about how my life's ambition was to walk on Mars, just to see if there were actual Mars bars on the surface.

(Hey, I said I wanted to be an astronaut, I didn't claim to actually know what I was talking about in second grade! At least my second grade teacher had a wonderful sense of humour!)

Whenever there was a shuttle launch on television, I always wanted to see it. I still get a little bit upset knowing that I was born twelve years too late to be around for the first time that man ended up walking on the moon, but my parents would always have the television on whenever something big was happening in the world of NASA. Truth be told, I probably did see Sally Ride's first launch into outer space, but because I was only two, I don't even remember it.

But I do remember the Challenger explosion in January 1986. Although I was just a few months shy of turning five, seeing that spaceship explode in mid-air is one of the earliest memories that I remember seeing. It must have resonated in my subconscious for several weeks after the fact as my family recalls telling me that whenever we walked downtown, I'd tell every passing stranger all about the explosion.

The explosion was a terrible one, as many people watched the whole thing unfold live. Several people died, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first civilian to go into outer space had the mission been successful. Millions watched the event live, and reactions ranged from heartache to shock.

I can only imagine that after the explosion happened, people soon became fearful that such an event could happen again, but I was too young to understand the impact of what had happened. I suppose that if I were a bit older and saw the accident happen, I might have felt differently about it. But, despite the fate that befell the Challenger, I still wanted to go up in space. I still wanted to pursue my dream of becoming an astronaut.

So, what changed?

Well, high school, for one. High school science and I did NOT get along. I often got really terrible grades in science class despite the fact that I made an honest effort to pass. I ended up with a 72 in the biology aspect, a 67 in chemistry, and I ended up dropping out of physics about three weeks into the course, as I literally had zero understanding of the subject whatsoever. And when you consider that physics is probably the most important of the sciences that one needed to actually go into space exploration, that put an end to any dreams that I ever had of becoming a first class astronaut.

Despite this setback though, I'm still very much interested in outer space, and one of the things that I have always wanted to do was go to Space Camp for a week, just to experience what it would be like to be an astronaut through simulations and demonstrations. I always wanted to see the Kennedy Space Center up close, and I actually have a friend who resides in Florida named Kat, who sent me a care package that had space ice cream, as well as a little Christmas ornament with Santa Claus piloting a space ship!

But you know...dreams can and do change. And in my case, my dream shifted from going up into outer space, to writing about outer space, and other various subjects. And, I figure that if Sally Ride could follow her dream, there's no reason why I can't.

Rest in peace, Sally Ride. May your star never burn out.

Sally Kristen Ride

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