NASA, Shuttles and Space for the Future

Space Shuttle Columbia STS-1

One of my favorite memories of this summer is the day I sat with my daughter snuggled in my lap and watched the final space shuttle launch. As Atlantis took to the skies, I wiped away tears and tried to explain to her why Mommy was crying over a spaceship. This is a little girl who has a room plastered with glow-in-the-dark stars and maps of the solar system and who picked a telescope as a birthday present one year because she wanted to see the planets. We talked about how cool it was, how amazing, that there were astronauts in that ship at exactly the moment we were watching it careen into space. She was fascinated at the idea that it was “for real” and, just like me, sad that it wouldn’t be happening again.

I attended a launch back when I was in college and it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. It was still new and exciting at the time, earning feature story coverage on the news rather than just a cursory mention. We got up at the crack of dawn to drive out to the Kennedy Space Center and got as close as we could before parking up on the grass, wedged between other cars. All of us were armed with binoculars and comfy chairs, some of them perched on top of car roofs, as we waited with our radios tuned to the countdown. And when that thing took off and I felt the noise radiate up through my feet and right out the top of my head, it took my breath away. It. Was. Amazing.

How to explain to a seven-year-old the experience of seeing a shuttle take off in person, the excitement, the awe of what we had accomplished?  We watched a lot of launch coverage that day and talked about how dangerous it is, how brave the astronauts are, and how it’s a worthwhile thing to explore and investigate and to try to do what no one thinks is possible. Now that NASA has a humanoid robot on the International Space Station, we even follow him on Twitter so she can ask him questions.

Space is cool. Exploring is cool. Science is cool. NASA is trying make sure kids think so too by giving schools a chance to own an actual shuttle tile and even some astronaut food. I hope someday my daughter boldly goes where no one has gone before, makes the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs and well, whatever her little heart desires. In the meantime, if her school manages to get one of those tiles, I’m sneaking into class that day so I get a chance to hold it when it makes its way around the room.

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