Thursday, February 26, 2009

Space Inspiration

My daughter asked my advice on behalf of a 13 year old girl she knows who expressed an interest in space, specifically in becoming an astronaut. I decided that most of the email I wrote her would fit pretty well in my blog, so here it is.

I’m trying to think of ideas for the girl we discussed. It's cool that she's interested in space, and I'd like to encourage her. I have a few books that she might like that you can borrow, including To Space and Back which Sally Ride wrote about her career and space flights. Here’s Dr. Ride's basic bio.

This also looks like a good book but I don’t have it: I Want to Be an Astronaut by Stephanie Maze (OK, I checked it out and it was $8 so I just bought it and shipped it to you for Monday – you can either lend it to her or give it to her if you think that would be meaningful to her to have it, your call. If you think lending it to her would be better, I’ll just add it to my outreach collection.)

I also have an extra copy of a photo book about the Earth or the Solar System. I bought it for a prize for one of my outreach presentations but you can give it to her if you want. It has great photos. Very inspiring!

Another inspiring woman is Anousheh Ansari. She grew up in Iran dreaming of space flight. She eventually got to America and became an engineer, then started a technology company with her husband and got quite rich. She paid $20 million for her own flight to the space station in 2006. She now works to inspire other people to follow their dreams. Her 2006 space blog is also on her site.

I found this site which has short science videos by an 8 year old boy named Enzo who is a science enthusiast. He’s cute and the videos seem to be informative but it may be too young or corny for a 13 year old. He has some on rocketry and space as well as other science subjects.

You asked about "space camp" possibilities – the “real” space camp is in Huntsville, AL though there may be some regional space-themed camps in this area, I'm not sure.

I would also suggest the DVD “October Sky” which is based on the true story of Homer Hickam, the son of a coal miner in WV who got interested in rockets in 1957 when Sputnik was launched. He overcame a lot of “you can’t do that, you’ll just be a coal miner like your pa” stuff with the help of a supportive teacher and friends. He eventually became an engineer for NASA, and had a great career including helping to train astronauts, though he didn’t become an astronaut himself. The book is also very good, Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam.

The truth is that even for a well motivated, high achieving, physically perfect person, the odds of becoming an astronaut are about the same as becoming a rock star or movie star, pretty slim – so far. But in the next 20 years, there will more development of private space projects possibly including space tourism, space station “hotels”, even moon bases. None of this is certain but some of it will happen. So there will probably be more opportunities than now, even for “jobs in space.” You won’t have to be a military pilot as many astronauts have been up to now (many of them are NOT pilots, but if not, they are usually scientists, engineers, or doctors). If you get interested in space, you’ll probably find other things about science interesting too. Space will also be important in monitoring climate change and maybe solving energy problems in the future.

The not-so-secret little secret of all this stuff is that you have to do well in school, take hard subjects like math and science, and stay REALLY focused to have a chance to do any of these things (you should probably also be an athlete if you want to be an astronaut). I wanted to be an air force pilot and an astronaut when I was a kid more than anything in the world (it was the 60’s and space was really big, so to speak). I was heartbroken at 12 when I needed glasses and realized I couldn’t go to the Air Force Academy which was my plan since I was maybe 8 years old.

But the interests I built up in learning about aviation and space stuck with me, and I also got interested in computers and science and math and had a good academic career (with a short detour to try to be a rock star) and an interesting professional career based on computers, physics, and optics. So inspiration DOES work, but it’s not an exact science. She may only be interested in space for a week. But it's worth a shot - she could also be the first person on Mars.


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