We all gathered in the auditorium and the television was playing. This was weird. Television was never on during school. Educational videos and movies from time to time, sure, but live television? That was like the antithesis of school. But here we were, watching TV and trying to decipher what had happened. When we figured it out, it left us speechless – apparently the Space Shuttle Challenger had blown up. This was devastating news.
It was 1986 and the Space Shuttle program was in full swing. Launches and landings were broadcast live with much media fanfare and I tried to catch every one that I could. It was one of the most interesting things I had ever seen and I thought that science and the space program was cool as all giddyup. Yes indeed, in the mid-1980s I could go from trying to emulate Mary Lou Retton in my backyard (with some amazing cartwheels and roundoffs) to reading intently my NASA-inspired kids magazine and ask my parents for the binoculars so I could study the moon.
Upon reflection, my personal educational explorations were rather unsophisticated. And while I might have wanted to be an astronaut at one time, I also wanted to be a lawyer, a detective, a singer, an Olympian and a writer. Yes, my childhood interests were diverse. But I was inspired by life around me. The 1984 Olympics gave me examples of women and girls who were athletes. I knew they existed but as yet had seen them celebrated. It allowed me to dream just a bit bigger.
The Space Shuttle program did the same thing. I didn’t go into science because of it, but it helped to cultivate my passion for learning, something which continues far outside the confines of a structured school program. It taught me there are other worlds to explore, both literally and metaphorically. It gave me another opportunity to dream and play and energized a curious girl.
If the weather holds, today will be the final launch of a space shuttle as Atlantis takes off on the final mission of the United States space shuttle. There is nostalgia and debate about the future of the U.S. space program. For me, it’s a bit sad to see the shuttles grounded, but it gives me an opportunity to remember what it was like to follow the shuttle missions when it was all new and shiny.