Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Astronaut Celebrity: Do You and I Have What it Takes?

I've never been starstruck by celebrity. People are people. I don't value fame nor rubbing shoulders with the famous. I value people for who they are. I've been this way for as long as I can remember.

In high school, I was starstruck by astronomy and the space industry in general. I had almost no interaction with the field, so I valued those who were my connection between the world I was in and the world I wanted to enter. For Laura the high school senior in suburbia Pennsylvania, that was astronaut Sally Ride.

I don't remember how the interaction was arranged. Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, was visiting our all-girls kindergarten through twelfth grade school which was undergoing a STEM education push. It was well known that I was a space geek, the only one among my peers. I was to be her student guide and travel with her on her tour of the school throughout the day.

I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, but my memories of that day are not positive. I had no experience with celebrity and had never been used as a photo prop before. But there I was, standing next to a person who caused me to be starstruck not because of who she was but what she represented, cameras capturing the moment and reporters interviewing us both. When the cameras were on, she was all smiles.

When the cameras left, I no longer existed. She responded to my excited questions with dismissal. She had heard all the questions before, many times before, but in my youth I didn't know that. I took her snub personally. As people, we all have our good and our bad days, and that may have been a bad day for her for all I knew. As I escorted her to my AP Physics class, I slumped into my desk, dejected. Short of being her guide, I was not invited to join her for the rest of the day, and I had not yet developed the boldness to go anyway.

Press shot from my physics class, back when I had short hair and wore a uniform - November 2001

She was among the first of the nearly 50 astronauts that I've met. There are times when I feel a bit starstruck, especially when meeting some of the originals, but I step back and check myself. These are people, just people, not too different from me. They have achievements and they have flaws. They are intelligent people who have done extraordinary service to their countries and to humankind, but at the core, they are just like you and me.

My former employer's motto is “space for all” and I'm rather fond of it. What is it about the “right stuff” mentality that makes us think that human spaceflight is only for the elite? I hope to fly someday. I hope my infant daughter flies someday if she chooses to. I believe in the concept of opening space up for the average consumer to book a flight and introducing space settlement for the general society.

The firsts deserve celebration and respect. They paved the way for the rest of us. But there is a “rest of us” that will follow. They were capable, and we are capable. We're dreamers, we're doers, and we're explorers. We'll all people. It's in our blood.

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