A modern pioneer

Like many people, I was stunned by the recent passing of Dr. Sally Ride. Although she was 61 when she passed away, she accomplished very much during her lifetime.

The obvious accomplishment was that she was the first woman to go into space. The decision to open up the application process at NASA in 1977 grabbed her attention, and she was among the 8,000 people who wanted the chance to go into orbit. I’ve never heard her or anyone else say this, but that extremely large applicant pool–NASA’s never had anywhere near that number since then–had to be aided, to some extent, by a movie named Star Wars that was released in May of 1977. If nobody who applied to become an astronaut in 1977 had seen the movie first, well, I apologize for floating the theory. But it seems like a reasonable enough correlation to me.

Of the 8,000 NASA applicants, Sally Ride was one of the 35 who were selected to be a part of the new Space Shuttle program. And her trip into space in 1983, around the time that I was starting high school, made her into a national celebrity. She doubtlessly inspired others to follow her path into space, as well. That, all by itself, would make hers a life worth noting.

But she didn’t stop there. She also founded Sally Ride Science, which was meant to make science fun to students in school. I never liked science, and did everything I could to keep my distance from it when I was young. But Sally Ride’s company strove to change that, and it was successful if even one student was steered in the direction of thinking about science in a new light. I have to believe that it was far more than just one student who was impacted by her efforts, though. I’m certain that the benefits of her efforts will be felt for decades to come.

And in death, Sally Ride became a pioneer in another way, which most people probably didn’t see coming. By acknowledging that she had a partner, she posthumously added her name, and the weight of her accomplishments, to the LGBT community. It was a very courageous thing for her and her partner to do, and its social impact will be felt far and wide.

Since California recently, and amid much controversy, changed their school curriculum to include the study of contributions made by LGBT individuals, I suggest that Sally Ride should be included as Exhibit A. While she deserves to be remembered for her accomplishments as an astronaut and an educator, her personal life doesn’t add or detract from her accomplishments in the least. But it’s a part of her life’s story that going to be difficult, if not impossible, to leave out going forward.

I applaud Sally Ride for the legacy that she leaves behind in space travel, science education, and social relations. Overlooking or ignoring her accomplishments would be an injustice, and is something that will not happen, at least in this little corner of the internet.

The movie that changed everything

Today is the anniversary of the release of Star Wars. I was eight years old back in 1977, and had only been to the movies to see old Disney films that had been re-released. My mom had taken me, my sister, and my brother to go and see Dumbo or Bambi or something like that. But Star Wars was different, and in a very good way.

My dad took me to see the movie, I suspect to keep him from having to see it by himself. The theater was packed, and everybody enjoyed the story of Luke and Leia and Han and old Ben Kenobi. The laser guns were almost a miracle of movie effects. The droids were funny and amusing. The Wookie was scary. And Darth Vader…where to begin? For a kid like me, Vader was the incarnation of all things evil. I still remember how it felt when Kenobi stopped fighting to let Luke escape. Vader swung into Obi-Wan and he just vanished. It has terrifying. But the fighting scenes at the end–where Luke destroys the Death Star–was just about as exhilarating as the movies ever got for me.

Part of the magic–and that’s really what it seemed like– was me being a kid, but part of it was discovering, for the first time, how movies can create, and then draw you into, another world. In the days before VCRs and DVDs and even Betamax machines, this was a feeling that could only be recreated by seeing the movie over and over again in the theater. I didn’t do that with Star Wars, (the only movie I can ever remember doing that with was Raiders of the Lost Ark a few years later) but I would have if I was old enough to get myself to a theater by myself.

The year after Star Wars came out, I saw a pirated copy of it on a Betamax machine. It was a glimpse into the future of home entertainment, I suppose. I also saw a parody of it called Hardware Wars, which was funnier than anything I had ever seen before then. The idea of a parody, which would later lead to some years of reading Mad Magazine, was a new thing to me at the time.

I recently did some research on NASA for a project I’m working on. I learned that the number of applications to their astronaut training program spiked to their highest level ever in 1978, and I have to believe that Star Wars had something to do with it. If they would have taken an application from a kid like me, I would have done it too. The movie had that kind of an impact.

So now, all these years later, May the 4th is now called “Star Wars day,” thanks in large part to social media. But the date when it was actually released to the world–which also just happened to be as school was letting out for the summer–is the best time to remember it.  Every movie wants to capture some of what Star Wars had, but none ever has, or likely ever will.

And remember, the Force will be with you, always.

A moment to remember

Like everyone else in my generation, I remember January 28, 1986 very well. You could say it was the Kennedy assassination moment for us. Everyone can tell you where they were when they heard about the Space Shuttle disaster.

On the recent anniversary of that terrible day, I was travelling with my family, and I didn’t have the right amount of time to put the events from the past in the right perspective. And I’m glad for that because today, just after the anniversary, I came across something that explains what happened a little bit.

The information was printed in the Chicago Tribune on January 27, 1986. It’s something of a collector’s item, because the Bears had won their first (and so far, their only) Super Bowl the day before. So nobody was really hanging onto the daily paper for any reason other than da Bears. But hanging onto that day’s paper did allow a little bit of light to slip through about the Challenger disaster, too.

The headline, appearing on page 3 of the front section, reads “Space shuttle, teacher forced to take day off.” The launch hadn’t happened yet, and looking at it a quarter of a century later–and knowing how it all went down–is a powerless feeling. If only they knew in Florida back then what we know today.

The launch was supposed to take place on Super Bowl Sunday itself, but was pushed back because of cold weather conditions in Florida. Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire, was planning to teach a lesson from space, and it was going to be broadcast live by PBS. Clearly, that never took place. Rather than being inspired by the mission, and the teacher who was on it, the space program suffered a devastating setback instead. I can’t imagine a more terrible turn of events for NASA.

But a paragraph in the middle of the story really caught my eye. It reads as follows:

“Delays in this Challenger mission are of particular concern because of NASA’s ambitious schedule of 14 and possibly 15 shuttle missions this year.”

The Challenger mission, and a Columbia mission scheduled to lift off on March 6 of that year, were intending to study Halley’s Comet.  The timing of these missions was said to be “critical” for being able to study the comet the way that they wanted to. And so rather than continue to push the Challenger launch date back, and thus jeopardize the Columbia mission and the busy year they had planned for 1986, NASA forged ahead in less than ideal conditions on Tuesday the 28th. And the results could not have been any worse.

I remember all of the jokes that were making the rounds after the explosion occurred (NASA=Need Another Seven Astronauts, and so forth). I was taking high school physics at the time, and “go throttle up” was a code phrase in the lab for “something bad is just about to happen.”

If you weren’t there at the time, it’s hard to appreciate how different the world was back then, without any internet, smartphones, and even so much as a laptop computer. It makes you wonder if all of this technology would have prevented what took place on that Tuesday morning back in early 1986. Because the human element–especially the part that gets frantic to meet deadlines, and thus is not as careful as it should be–will always be a factor.

May the families, friends, and students of Ms. McAuliffe, and the others who died that day, take comfort from the fact that their service to this country, and to scientific knowledge as a whole, is still remembered all these years later.