Friday, May 6, 2016

The Unacceptable Risks Meet an Astronaut!

A week or so ago an email landed in my inbox that was so unbelievable that I almost had to pinch myself.

Our Dean had been working for a few months to set something up for us with US2020, a mentorship program in the Research Triangle Park. The stars had finally aligned enough for us to have an opportunity to visit them at the Frontier Happy Hour...and show off our poster....and see our favorite Space Grant people...and meet some people from CASIS! Oh and by the way, Rex Walheim will be there. Would your students like to meet an astronaut?

Believe it or not, I made a decision to delete the email right then and never mention it to the team. Why? Because this golden opportunity was on the worst day of finals and I knew that many of them had very serious exams that night.

Once when I was in graduate school, my sister in law won tickets to see Weezer and Tenacious D in concert together and invited me to go. Unfortunately, the concert was the day of a geostatistics exam and it was in Texas. I had to choose and let's just say I made the wrong choice. (I chose school.)

So, I looked at this email and made the decision to at least tell Jimmy and let him make an educated choice. I sent him an email, "Please call when you can. It's about an astronaut." Seconds later my phone rang. Jimmy takes astronauts very seriously. We concluded that this was an opportunity that was not to be missed and I started brainstorming ways to make it work. Between me, the Chair of the Science Department and some very understanding instructors, we were able to proctor some exams early and go meet a hero!

Thursday was a long day. Work, differential equations finals, grading four sections of exams....we were all pretty wrung out by the time we landed at this event. It was all worth it because the event at Frontier was instantly invigorating. From the moment we set up our poster people were lined up to speak with the students about their project. We met many fabulous people in the scientific community and we were eager to speak with them about their research. The students were very happily overwhelmed with possibilities. Dan was even asked to participate with NCSU's award winning rocketry team in the fall.

After a few hours of mingling and networking we listened to a presentation about the International Space Station. I sat on a couch with an astronaut for a while. No big deal.

Most of the team had not been fed or watered for a long stretch of time so I snuck out to the car and found the most delicious and well received bag of baby carrots in America. We were fading, Jimmy was hoarse and we still hadn't met an astronaut.

But then Rex took the stage and we got our third wind. He gave a dynamic presentation about his time training for his mission and work on the ISS. It was eye opening to see the behind the scenes preparation and the emotional impact of his work on his family. He shared some stunning photos and video from his experience and the team was enthralled. After his presentation was over he took questions and I asked him, very predictably, "What advice do you have for students who might hope to one day work with the Mars mission?"

David said, "You are such a teacher."

Rex answered that the best thing that they can do is to be persistent. He knew he wanted to be an astronaut but his best laid plans derailed when a doctor told him he had a heart murmur. Undaunted, he proceeded with his training and found a way to still be involved as a test pilot. After he completed his training he visited another doctor to be cleared for flight and found out he did not have a heart murmur!

This struck me as solid advice and I was happy that my team heard it. We learned a lot about persistence during this project!  I hope they will remember this moment when they face even bigger challenges in the coming years and use this experience as a fuel to persevere.

After the question and answer period was over Rex was swarmed with people who wanted photos and we hung back shyly until our friend Sandy, from Space Grant, encouraged us to elbow our way in and get some photos. I'm so glad she did.

Rex spoke with us for a bit about our project and seemed genuinely interested to hear about our first launch. Do you know what it's like to compare space photos with an astronaut?


We were all a bit star struck. 

Unacceptable thanks to US2020, Frontier, NC Space Grant, CASIS, Dr. Zarilla, Dean Mancini, Sr. Lee and persistence for making another one of our dreams come true. 

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