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Monday, January 4, 2016


Most of the time, we roll along without really noticing how our personal history intertwines with the world's history. Then there are moments when the two collide and what touches the world effects us with life-changing force. That's actually happened to me more than once. But one moment that happened thirty years ago is what's on mind and in my heart today as it's anniversary looms. So I'll share.

While I'm best known for writing about wildlife and conservation issues, I have a long history of being involved with NASA and the space program. It was an exciting, totally amazing experience. You could say I grew into writing about science and striving to bring science to life for children because of that experience. 

My relationship with NASA began because I was writing the "Hands-On, Minds-On" column for Instructor Magazine (something I did for eleven years). Plus I was simply fascinated by the space program. After all, when I was in elementary school the space race was just starting. 

I remember standing outside at night with my mom and dad, watching for Sputnik to zip by overhead. In college, rushing to the Student Union between classes to elbow into the crowd around the TV watching John Glenn's return from earth orbit. And the summer of 1969 driving for hours to get back to the girl's camp I was working at in time to watch Neil Armstrong step on the moon. The space program was in my blood.

How exciting to have the opportunity as a writer to go inside NASA first for Instructor Magazine. Later, for NASA and the Martin Marietta Corporation on assignment to produce educational materials for the backs of posters and handouts for schools. I actually sat in a room with moon rocks. Climbed around inside the Space Shuttle trainer. Tried out the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) trainer. 

And I had a chance to interview astronauts. I remember asking George "Pinky" Nelson what it felt like to launch in the Space Shuttle. He said, "Like being smacked in the back with a baseball bat."

In 2007, I was blessed to interview Scott Carpenter toward the end of his life. He was amazing to talk to because, while he was the fourth American to fly into space and the second to orbit the earth, he'd also lived and worked for 30 days in SeaLab II--deep down at the bottom of the ocean. 

That interview happened because Tuffy, the dolphin, brought mail and supplies from the surface to the deep habitat. But what I was most interested in was his take on being in those two extreme environments. Scott said, "In space flight, you sense the acceleration but not the reduced pressure once you're weightless. Weightlessness is unimportant to you. Likewise, once you're underwater, you're insensitive to the great pressure. What's exciting always for someone who's curious, like me, is the chance to learn all sorts of things and do all sorts of things that had not been done before."

For me, being curious led to some incredible, unforgettable moments connected with the space program. One of those was June 18, 1983. That was when Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman astronaut to fly into space. 

Because of my long involvement with NASA and the space program by that time, I was honored to be invited to be one of the women journalists to attend a three-day celebration of that event. The culminating moment, of course, was standing with the press for the launch. 

We were as close as viewers are allowed to be. The weather was perfect. And it was as spectacular as you can possibly imagine. The ground shook under my feet. The air around me quivered so that I felt that launch to my bones. Tears filled my eyes but that blur only made the image of the rising Space Shuttle all the more soul-stirring. I was so proud to know a woman had now accomplished this--proving WE CAN DO ANYTHING! 

I was determined from that moment on to let children know science careers were exciting--full of possibilities. And for young girls to know there are no doors their curiosity can't open. 

So I proposed and sold the idea for a book about the Space Shuttle and the in-space experiments it was making possible. Through my research for that book, I interviewed scientists involved in developing the latest technology for the Shuttle. I also had the opportunity to stand under the Challenger as tiles which had been damaged or dropped off during reentry were replaced. And I talked to more astronauts preparing to work in space. I was very excited that a teacher would soon be going into space. In fact, would be launching just before my book would be published.

Then January 28, 1986 happened. Thirty years ago this January I was working on some revision notes my editor had sent me for my book on the Space Shuttle. I'd meant to watch the launch on television but my revision was due and I was intent on my work. Then the phone rang. 

Had I seen it? Had I watched the explosion?

I raced to the television. I was watching the replay of the Challenger disaster when the phone rang. It was my editor saying they couldn't possibly publish my book. Not now.

Over the next few weeks as the world stumbled from shock to grief, my publisher reeled between "No Way!" to "We'll publish it!" and back again. I even flew to New York for one long discussion on the subject. Ultimately, the publisher was simply too afraid children couldn't read about the Space Shuttle after this tragedy. So I accepted that this was also the end of my book--until one afternoon when the phone rang.

I was cooking dinner and the kitchen had a wall phone within reach so I grabbed it. I expected it to be one of my children needing a ride but it was June Scobee, wife of Major General Richard "Dick" Scobee, Commander of the Challenger who'd been killed in that fateful launch. It was a hot day and yet I remember feeling a shiver tremble through me. 

June asked if I had time to talk. 

Of course.

My phone had a long, stretchy cord and so I slipped up onto the kitchen counter to sit with my legs dangling and the phone clutched to my ear. I listened. June talked. And of what she said one part  burned into my memory.

June said, "You have to get that book published. Children need to read it. If people had stopped going West when something terrible happened, we would never have settled the West. So promise me, you'll get it published."

It took me eight years to keep that promise. Took changing the book a lot by then. Took finding a different publisher. But I did publish PIONEERING SPACE. 

It was well reviewed and had a good run. But, after a while, PIONEERING SPACE went out-of-print. I turned my focus to conservation issues. Voyaged three times to Antarctica and even spent a nine-month long winter there. I also loosed my NASA ties as people moved on or retired.  But I never stopped feeling the explorer's spirit being involved with the space program had ignited in me. Never wavered in working to inspire children to feel it too. 

Then, just recently, I was searching for a scientist to interview because of her involvement studying an amazing bird I'm writing about. She seemed to have left her university position but I was determined to connect. So I tracked her from one possible place to another. And, finally, found her. She had joined NASA following her childhood dream. I pursued a chance to interview her and was put through a series of clearance tests until someone asked if I'd ever had any previous clearance by NASA. "Well, yes, I said." And shared, briefly.

I was given a time to call and when the young woman came on the line, I was able to congratulate her. You see, she'd just successfully completed her astronaut training. What's more, her class is the first to be designated as NASA's Mars Astronauts. 

So we talked about her bird research but we also talked about her goals for the future in today's space program. And I felt that long-damped spark of interest in space flicker to life inside me. My curiosity swell to bursting. When we said, good-bye with the mutual promise of staying in touch, I thought,"What if?!"

And if there is anything I've learned in my years of writing WHAT IF has life-changing force. 

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