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Zoe P. Strassfield

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Flying for Me

Posted: 01/31/2012 7:46 am

I suppose I should preface this post by saying that by its very nature, it may make some people feel old. I apologize for that.

While coming back to Boston a few weeks ago after the holiday vacation, I passed time on the ferry ride across Long Island Sound by re-reading one of the books I'd gotten for Christmas, June Scobee Rodgers' Silver Linings: Triumph of the Challenger 7. I'd wanted the book for a while because Dr. Scobee Rodgers' first husband, astronaut Francis "Dick" Scobee, is one of my heroes, and I was eager to learn more about his life.

The middle-aged woman in the seat next to me noticed my book and asked what I was reading. I showed her the cover, and she was quiet for a moment.

"Oh, the Challenger? That was very sad." She said, remembering.

"Yes." I agreed, "It was."

"That was quite a while ago." The woman said "How old were you?"

"Negative seven." I said, awkwardly.

"Oh." The woman said, blinking. "I was... well, I probably shouldn't say."

"A positive number?" I offered, helpfully.

"Yes, a positive number." She said, going back to her magazine.

The whole conversation was very familiar to me. I'd had it many times before with adults, and every time, it had been just as awkward. The Challenger astronauts are my heroes. I know all of their biographies. When I was in Washington DC this summer, I left flowers for Commander Scobee and his co-pilot, Mike Smith, on their graves at Arlington National Cemetery and left a matching white rose for Ron McNair at the building named in his honor at MIT when I was there for the Zero Robotics championship. I think that John Denver's tribute, "Flying for Me" is a beautiful, wonderful song, and I listen to it every January 28th in remembrance. I have tremendous respect for these seven brave people.

I see no reason why that respect should be any less because I happened to be born seven years after their deaths.

I've always been very fascinated by history, which is why I'm majoring in archeology right now. Throughout grade school, I had a habit of flipping to the very last chapters of every history textbook I was given to see what the last thing written about was. The American History textbook my school used in 7th and 8th grades had information about the Challenger accident in its final chapter, and included Christa McAuliffe's quote "I watched the space age being born, and I would like to participate." (Call to Freedom, 2000 edition, for those who care.) The official crew photo was one of the last pictures in the whole textbook.

I remembered thinking that whoever the editors had chosen to end the book with must have been very important indeed. I figured that once our class got to the final chapter, we would be able to learn more about who those people in the photograph had been. Our class stopped with the 70s, so I decided I'd have to look them up on my own. (I actually don't think I've ever taken any US history class that went past the 70s. As a result, most of what I know about the 80s is related to the space program.)

Whenever I view anything related to the space shuttle older than I am, even now, there is always a hint of paradox at seeing people with unfamiliar clothes and hairstyles interacting with the spacecraft that is so familiar to me from my own childhood. (As I wrote back in July, you know you're a 1990s kid if thinking about the space shuttle means thinking about your life before 18.) In my research, I've found other areas of disconnect, and it's those deeper differences between 2012 and 1986 that reveal just how much I owe to the Challenger 7.

I'm lucky enough to have a lot of friends my age with an interest in space exploration. With all of the kids I've met who've wanted to be astronauts, I think it's a pretty safe bet that I'll be able to say I knew at least one future Marswalker before they were famous. I'm proud to say that the young space enthusiasts I know are a very diverse group and that some of my best partners in nerdiness are also female.

It's hard for me to imagine that when Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, and Ronald McNair were my age, the only place they could see astronauts who looked like them was on Star Trek. I'm the only girl in the Boston University SEDS chapter who ISN'T an engineering major! So I want to thank them for opening up the way.

The first time I saw the (really great) IMAX film The Dream is Alive, which covers several shuttle missions that occurred in 1984, I laughed, along with the rest of my Space Camp team when Walter Cronkite announced, "Soon, we will begin to build a space station." The construction of the International Space Station had been going on since we'd been five years old!

But, at the time of the Challenger accident, the space station was still being planned. One of Christa McAuliffe's on-orbit lessons would have included showing a conceptual model of the space station and talking about how engineers were figuring out how they were going to build it. NASA had never built anything piece-by-piece in space before. It was those flights of the mid-1980s that proved the shuttle could reach and capture a satellite already in orbit, that large solar arrays could provide enough power to keep a station crew alive and be successfully expanded and retracted, that astronauts could do the kind of high-precision spacewalks and careful work with the shuttle's robotic arm needed to assemble the station.

Life without the Hubble Space Telescope is even harder for me to imagine. But it was those same early shuttle missions that proved Hubble could be serviced and gave NASA the confidence to launch a repair mission to save it after it was discovered to have a faulty mirror. I can't imagine life without the pictures and data the Hubble sends back--and neither could a lot of other people, to the extent that when the final servicing mission was cancelled, the public protested and had it reinstated.

In my mind, the Hubble telescope and the station are almost synonymous with the shuttle. But that's only because of the work these astronauts did. And so, I want to thank them again, for the ISS and the Hubble.

Watching the Punky Brewster episode about the disaster, "Accidents Happen", when one of her classmates says "Are they going to stop the space program?", I can't help but go "Pshw, no." But at the time, it wasn't that simple, and NASA's future was very uncertain. But because the astronauts had impressed upon their coworkers and families the fact that they didn't want the program to stop if anything happened to them, the call to continue space exploration was loud and clear.

If they had stopped, seven years before I was born, I wouldn't have any of the space memories I hold so fondly. I wouldn't have the photos from the Hubble or the Cassini probe that I know so well. I wouldn't have been able to go to Space Camp or work at NASA. I wouldn't have been able to cheer the landings of the Mars rovers and the Phoenix lander and see their first images of that beautiful and mysterious planet. I wouldn't have been able to see the Space Shuttle Discovery launch or the space station pass overhead.

So I want to thank the astronauts, their co-workers, and their families for making that boy's suggestion so laughable to me today.

A lot of people (like my dad) think I know everything there is to know about space. But that isn't true. I can't tell you how many times I've needed to ask for an explanation when talk with an astronomy or engineering major at a club meeting has turned technical. I know that these students will be able to build and discover wonders once they graduate--things I'd love to do. But, as sad as it makes me, I just don't have the mathematical aptitude to major or minor in those fields. I've found myself wishing my brain was wired differently on many an occasion.

But that doesn't discourage me. Because I know I still have something to contribute. I'm in my element on the roof of the College of Arts and Sciences building on Wednesday nights explaining to people what they're looking at. I have a lot of creative ideas that my more math-inclined teammates don't always think of, and they often thank me for them. And I don't automatically believe that being bad at math means I'll never go to space.

Because I know there's a place in space for people who love history class, too.

So, even though I was negative seven at the time of the accident, I salute the Challenger 7, and the opportunities they gave my generation. Because they were flying for me, too.