I’m in California right now, and tomorrow I’m headed to my second NASA event in two weeks. The last event, at the Johnson Space Center last Wednesday (I promise I will write about that one and this one in more detail in the next two weeks), really solidified my desire to work at NASA. It also made me want to be an astronaut, but that’s my “reach” dream, whereas just working at NASA is pretty realistic. Anyway. I got to spend a lot of time with some really awesome people at Johnson.
The astronauts above are only a few of the great people I met. But every single person I met at NASA was a huge dork. When I say dork, I mean it in a good way. I mean that everyone was unabashedly enthusiastic about what they were doing, from the biggest-deal astronaut to the engineers to the physiologists to the tour guides. Everyone was thrilled to be there. Everyone wanted to answer questions and chat about space things and really engage in an interesting and meaningful way.
That, I think, is why NASA outreach is so important and makes such a huge difference (see: everything Chris Hadfield has ever done). As I learned when coaching a middle school Science Olympiad group last year, space is one of those subjects that really gets people excited; it is the easiest way (barring maybe dinosaurs) to get kids interested in science. It’s what led me to consider a degree in physics: space is cool. It’s a gateway science. You learn one or two cool things about galaxies and nebulae and before you know it you’re drawn in to all kinds of mechanics and relativity and thermodynamics and chemistry. So when astronauts communicate with the general public, they’re drawing everyone in, teaching everyone something, and encouraging everyone to learn more.
With astronauts (at least the five or seven that I met), there’s a sense of “this is just a normal person who has been to space” – of course, they’re not exactly normal. They all have crazy academic accomplishments and most are perfect physical specimens, and I’m sure something about the selection process has to do with picking personable, charismatic people. But there’s a sense, at least for me and other nerds like me, that these are our people. And that’s why I want to work at NASA. Because those are my people. They’re smart, inquisitive, friendly, and earnest. They’re excited about the same things I’m excited about, except they’re on the inside. Someday, I’ll be on the inside.
Postscript: I want to share something I saw at the last part of the event, when we were at a fitness event that was geared towards kids at camp at Johnson. Mike Hopkins was talking to a group of kids about how it’s important to work hard in school and also to run around and get exercise, and a little girl asked, “Are you really an astronaut?” Mike smiled and said yes, in the least patronizing way possible. Later I saw her reach up and touch his arm with one finger really quick, like sneaking to touch something in a museum. It was the cutest thing ever. Hey, if you’re gonna idolize someone, I’m not sure I can think of a better choice.