This post by Madi Sengupta was originally written in May 2010. We share it here to encourage us to think about the stories we have to tell - and how important it is that we commit to telling them.
Last night, as I drove down NASA Parkway, I glanced towards the dimly lit buildings littered across the Johnson Space Center (JSC) property. A part of an actual Saturn V lay ahead, just past the silhouetted trees of the Memorial Garden, where the heroes and legends of human spaceflight past are honored for their contributions and sacrifices. My eyes traveled a bit further to the right, where a gleaming American flag stood proud and tall, atop a building that holds tremendous significance for those of us who’ve had even a minute aspiration to contribute to space exploration – the Mission Control Center.
JSC is an interesting amalgamation of new and old, a distinct dichotomy of past and present; where many buildings stand, having weathered decades of political, societal, even meteorological storms. Time and technology’s marks have been left on their interiors, which have endured series of renovations and upgrades.
Last week, strolling through the relatively empty parking lot of Mission Control, I thought a lot about the role and duty we have as space enthusiasts to reach out and engage the general public, who’re unaware of the vast benefits and implications of the human spaceflight program.
Over the next few days, I had a bit of an enlightening moment.
On February 1st of this year, the President announced his new plan for NASA. Add whatever superlative you’d like to describe the plan, but one thing one cannot deny is that it is, in fact, quite dissimilar from what we are used to. I mean, he’s talking about landing on an asteroid…Armageddon-style (clearly not how we’d do it, but I say that simply to emphasize a point: that’s what the public will think of as soon as this plan is officially adopted).
The transition is soon to be upon us, and as I pondered this, I came to the following realization: what better way to approach and work through a transition than actively work to communicate NASA and human spaceflight’s value to those around us, in whatever small way we can?
Think about this before the thought is discounted.
Think about the societal impact that human spaceflight has made over the years. In its peak of popularity amongst the general public, those very same people – the taxpayers – knew exactly what NASA was doing. After all, we had a singular goal: beat the Russians to the moon. Easy to stand behind a single goal, right?
Understandably, as technology has developed, so, too, have the agency’s goals…to the point where the average Joe Schmo no longer has a clear idea of what NASA is trying to accomplish, or even what the agency is working on across its ten centers.
So, what does this mean? The unique thing, in my eyes, about the spaceflight community is the number of advocates it has, in and out of the ranks of the agency and its contracting community. There are space enthusiasts of varying levels not just across the US, but across the world. Space exploration has a magical influence on those who crave adventure that overpowers every sense and engulfs the mind. It’s that inexplicable feeling of overwhelming excitement and fascination that I’ve yet been able to articulate into words, and not for a lack of trying, I might add.
In my last post, I challenged the NASA employees and the NASA Tweetup participants. I mentioned that we have a collective responsibility to engage those around us and communicate the excitement we felt at the time of our space “firsts.” And after thinking about this over the last few days, I realized that it’s not just those affiliated with NASA who have this obligation. It’s a responsibility we must all share as space enthusiasts, regardless of whether we’ve set foot inside any one of NASA’s centers.
Just think about the implications of turning to your friend, who doesn’t even know that Atlantis and her crew were hard at work these last couple of weeks, who may not even know that we had twelve people living and breathing off the planet, who may not even know that we have had continuous human presence in space for so many years, and telling him/her about ALL of those things and more. What if we worked collectively and actively over the next several months to excite those around us with those facts and our own personal stories? What if, through this transition, more and more people learned about all the interesting and exciting things that NASA has done in the past, continues to do, and most importantly, all of the great number of achievements left before us? After all…hello, 21st century, adventure is calling, and we really need to answer. Asteroids? Sure! Mars? You betcha! The possibilities are truly limitless. And I should insert a note here to deter naysayers from commenting on the current future of our space program: I purposely bolded century, as we have a long ways to go until the end…the century does not end after the next election cycle, nor after 2020 when we were supposed to have a US human presence on the moon, and definitely not after 2030 when humans were to live on Mars.
My naïve, little mind tells me that this could perhaps be the silver lining to the grey cloud of transition. I don’t see the lack of our national capability to send people into LEO as a negative thing anymore. Sure, it stinks a little bit…but as we work to build the next generation of vehicles, there’s no reason we can’t help to inspire the next generation of explorers.
Work large, work small…it doesn’t matter how many people you reach out to, but think about the implication of just this small action.
Stories are powerful…and personal stories, they convey the emotions and subtleties that a simple third-hand recounting just cannot. Think back to the first time you saw Mission Control, or the first time you met an astronaut, the first time you saw the Space Shuttle roar to the sky, or even the first time an astronaut wrote to you on Twitter. Think about the excitement that you felt and the awe that it inspired. Think about getting to share that feeling, about getting to share in that passion with someone else. There’s no reason we can’t all, in our own way, tell people about the amazing experiences we’ve had, whether it’s working at NASA or just visiting.
I’ve realized over the course of the last two weeks the true impact of communicating our story to those around me. Engaging, even after the event, with the NASA Tweetup participants has demonstrated to me, in a profoundly significant way, the true greatness of the opportunity I have. Not until yesterday did I realize the unique vantage point I’m privy to…the ability (and now the willingness) to tell all of the people I get to meet through these opportunities about the amazing things NASA does.
So, I extend my challenge – not to just you, but myself, as well. You all share that unique perspective, in one form or another, as space enthusiasts.
How will you capitalize on it?