Fortitudine vincimus

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Let her Fly: On Challenger and the Rise of the Dream


I hadn’t been born when Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. I was too young to get a feel for Svetlana Savitskaya, or the first American woman in space, Sally Ride.

By January of 1986 I was six years old and could comprehend news stories and articles about the upcoming launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. When I saw a photo of Judy Resnik, taken on her first shuttle flight in 1984, I thought she was the coolest person alive. She had long, curly hair that stuck out in all directions in the reduced gravity of space, and had this air about her that made tiny me very happy.

When she died on Challenger on January 28, 1986, I didn’t know right away. My Catholic school was not watching the launch, and no one told me when I got home. I saw an article in the newspaper at my grandmother’s house instead. I wasn’t really sure what it all meant at that point, except for my grandmother’s explanation that the astronauts had “gone to heaven.”

All I knew was that I wanted to go to space, and Judith Resnik was the reason why.

I held on to that for quite some time. When Shannon Lucid made her second shuttle flight in 1989, I was much more capable of understanding the requirements. I was going to become an engineer, just like Judith Resnik. And to make myself even more appealing, I was going to become a pilot and join the Air Force. All on a direct forward trajectory to becoming an Astronaut Candidate.

Obviously, none of those things ever happened. I am not the shining example of what happens when a kid has a dream. Between an impressive lack of self-confidence and constant reminders that I needed to focus myself on ensuring a job that would pay my bills above all other things (and becoming an astronaut or a musician was not only not the way to do that, but an impossible goal to begin with), I never made it. And I never had another dream. I decided I liked designing, so I did it, because it would pay the bills. It wasn’t something I fantasized about while I sat outside under the stars. I started writing because I enjoy it, but there’s a reason I like to write about space. Writing about space is the closest I will get to going there.

Why bring it up, then? Because somewhere, there is a little girl who wants to go to space. Maybe she doesn’t know Judith Resnik, but has photos of Laurel Clark, Mae Jemison, Ellen Ochoa, Barbara Morgan, or Kalpana Chawla on her walls. Maybe she wants to be a pilot, an engineer, or a physicist.

For the love of all that’s good in the world, don’t tell her she can’t do it. Maybe she’ll be the type that takes that kind of block in stride and jumps over it, but she might be the type who runs head first into those blocks and fades a little with each hit, like I was. Teach her that she can be more than her surroundings, or her family’s past, or her looks, weight or any other arbitrary definition. Teach her that critical thinking is necessary, and it will help her think through the problems that come her way. Encourage her love of science, and don’t blow her off when she excitedly points to Polaris in the night sky. Teach her that the only things that bind her potential are within her own mind, and they can all be conquered.

The next Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Seddon, Bonnie Dunbar, Mary Cleave, Liu Yang or Samantha Cristoforetti might just be sitting in your living room. Let her fly.

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