08/19/2011 12:23 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2011

You Never Know

Events of July 8, 2011

Now there was another period of silence, long minutes as the shuttle's main engines continued to burn to take it into orbit. The bright curvature of the Earth against the darkness of space was visible, but it didn't change very much until the shuttle rolled over to make communications easier. Still, we watched. Ascent wasn't over until they reached orbit.

"Atlantis, press to MECO." The capcom announced. That meant that the shuttle's engines were all working fine and the flight would continue as normal until the Main Engines Cut Off (MECO) at their usual time.

There was a spray of white fire visible from the engines, and then, the fuel all used up, the orange external tank separated from the shuttle orbiter and began to fall. It would burn up in the atmosphere in a few hours, but now there was only the silence of the falling, the black tiled underside of the orbiter pulling away, and the sight of small scraps of insulation flying away, moving as only objects in microgravity can.

It was complete. More cheering, more smiles, and more clapping, with hands already sore from having applauded so much. People started to head for the doors. I saw a family getting up to use the door closest to me.

"Did you like that?" I asked.

"It was great!" One of the two girls answered, in an Australian accent.

"Do you know where we can get pins like yours?" Her sister asked, looking at the pins on my jacket.

"Well, I don't know if we have any pins for this mission left, they've been going like crazy. But if you stay right here, I'll run up and bring some other stuff back for you guys." I offered. My STS-135 pin had been the last one the guy who'd given it to me had.

"You mean you work here?" The girls' mother asked.

"Yup, I'm a NASA intern." I said, proudly. And, since I figured this was another one of those situations that justified running in heels, I sprinted out the door, to the elevator, and, once the elevator opened on the 9th floor, I speed-walked. I found them some mission stickers, bookmarks, and posters, but I felt like it wasn't enough when I knew the Public Resources Room in the headquarters library had cooler ones.

So I hurried back and found the Australian family still waiting in the auditorium. The girls liked what I had, but when I offered to show them even more in the library, they practically skipped off behind me as I showed them the way. Their parents followed more slowly behind.

I pointed out some of the artifacts on display in the library, and made an Inspector Gadget joke that fell flat because the girls hadn't seen the show, which made me feel really old. I found out that they were in DC on vacation and planning to go to the National Air and Space Museum next.

Oh man, those little girls cleaned out the Public Resources Room. They wanted two of everything. And since they were looking forward to seeing the IMAX film Hubble 3-D at the museum, they especially wanted the glossy prints of Hubble photographs, and the crew portrait of the astronauts they'd be seeing in the movie. But their parents were perfectly fine with letting them pick out as many posters, prints, and stickers as they wanted, since they were, after all, free. Their parents said they did everything possible to encourage their daughters' interests in science, and I believed it- the whole family was grinning ear-to-ear as I left them with a librarian and went to get lunch.

I started my recounting of this day by talking about experiences unique to 1990s kids. Another one might be living in the 1997-2004 period after the Mars Pathfinder mission, but before the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, when the coolest, craziest, swankiest space probe in every young readers' nonfiction book or TV program was the lunchbox-sized Sojourner rover. I remember reading one particular book about Sojourner at the library that I now own because they (gasp) discarded it.

What stuck with me was the book's ending- a hypothetical scene several decades in the future where a Martian- not an alien, but a space-suited human residing on the red planet- driving by in a fancy Mars buggy rediscovered Sojourner, half-buried in the red Martian sands. The colonist traced their name in the dust on the old rover's solar panel "and remembered the adventure that started it all."

Now, you think I'm going to do the cheesy thing and say that I'm certain one of those girls is going to be that colonist. If there's one thing the weather on that launch day showed me, it's that nobody can ever be quite certain what's going to happen in the future. But hey, you never know.