06/19/2011 08:12 am ET | Updated Aug 19, 2011

A Daughter's Dream of Space (As an Era Comes to a Close)

Sometimes people ask me how I became obsessed with spaceflight. I think what they mean to ask is how as a girl I became obsessed with spaceflight -- women are definitely a minority among space geeks. My answers have changed over time, and the longer I'm asked, the further back I have to trace the history, the true origins, of my love affair with rockets and astronauts.

I was first asked the question when my novel about the Challenger disaster was published. I used to answer that I lived near Washington, DC as a child and spent a lot of time at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I remember observing the relics of Apollo behind cloudy glass, the weird plastic packets of food eaten on the missions to the moon, the paper logs with algorithms printed on them, survival gear in case the capsule should splash down in the wrong place, including shark repellent. The idea that men had taken these things to the moon seemed like a dream, a fairy tale.

My father liked Air and Space. He was a law student, but had studied electrical engineering. He was interested in things and knew the answers to questions. It didn't occur to me at the time that there was anything usual about this.

As time went on, I kept being asked the question: How did you come to be interested in space? The answer started to reach back one step further: because my parents divorced when I was 7 and my brother was 3. On weekends we spent with my father, he wanted to take us somewhere we could all enjoy, and that was how we wound up at Air and Space, over and over again. The museum had one of the first IMAX theaters, and we saw The Dream Is Alive what felt like nearly every weekend, a documentary shot by astronauts themselves on the space shuttle Discovery in 1984. It's a beautiful film, or at least that's how I remember it; maybe it's the hazy effect of having watching it over and over until its images were indistinguishable from my dreams. Judith Resnik's black hair floating in the air as she slept; the majesty of the world turning under the astronauts' feet.

I remember asking my father a million questions about things we saw in that movie, things we saw in the street, and things I read in books. It didn't seem to occur to him that anything might be beyond my comprehension, or that I should be left out of technical explanations because I was a girl. I remember one conversation we had when I couldn't have been much more than 8. I don't remember the question, but I do remember that his answer was, "In order to explain that, I'd have to tell you about imaginary numbers."

"So, tell me about imaginary numbers," I answered with the easy confidence of an 8-year-old. And he did tell me. I understood, and remembered what he said. I still do. About 9 years later, when I came across imaginary numbers again in pre-calculus, I couldn't understand why everyone else found the concept so difficult to grasp, why the teacher worked himself into such knots at the blackboard. Only then did I realize that my father was unusual, that he had taught me, maybe without meaning to, never to be scared by something I didn't already know. This has been his great gift to me.

As I prepare to go to Florida to write about the very last space shuttle launch next month, I'm mainly interested in the human elements, the cultural and emotional importance of the fifty-year era of American spaceflight now ending. But in writing about the beauty and the romance, I also know why the rocket boosters use solid fuel rather than liquid, and why the payload bay was designed the way it was. I'm especially interested in those odd places where the technical and the emotional intersect -- like children watching Challenger explode with a schoolteacher aboard, like a bored child in a movie theater watching a beautiful astronaut float in space, over and over again. The real answer to the question, "How did you become interested in space?" is: because a patient man took the time to explain things to a little girl.

So happy Father's Day to my dad for always explaining things. And happy Father's Day to all you dads who take your kids to museums, who answer questions -- who show your kids, by example, how to love to learn.