Space Exploration, Science Centers, and the Stuff of Dreams and Inspiration

I was born too early.

Not in the sense of premature.  My mother will attest to that fact that I was definitely a full term baby.  No, I was born “in the wrong century,” too early.  For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to travel to space.  I was but a young child when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, stories later of which later stirred something in soul – a dream of one day being an astronaut. While it was not the singular moment as it was for countless others now employed or are directly connected in way or the other with the space program, stories in the years after fed that inner “knowing.”  It was a knowing, a feeling, that I belong “up there” and a need to find a way to get there that has stayed with me since.

Science teachers and various science fiction TV shows and movies kept me mesmerized and focused on the dream. Agree or disagree, the essence of Star Trek showed me what a society that focused on working for the common good, on personal and intellectual growth over the acquisition of material goods and the governing power of the Prime Directive looked like and operated, and it gave me hope.  I wanted to live and breathe and thrive in a Star Trek world, utopian as it was, to have access to a holodeck in which I could create and interact with any story in real time and “travel” anywhere, to have replicator to access any kind of culinary delight I wanted (even it if was manufactured matter) and wash my dishes, but I was born too early.

I know there is much more to the “Star Trek” world, but I tend to look forward with a positive gaze. This utopian world of Star Trek gave me a sense that if we as humanity could just put on our big boy pants, drop our egos and destructive governing systems, we could live in a world where each could experience and live to the fullest potential of our choosing, explore and utilize our unique and individual gifts to uplift and edify the masses, not tear each other down.  Other science fiction shows such as Babylon 5 and Farscape suggest that perhaps a measure of chaos in needed to test our principles, strengths, resolve and commitment to a purpose, lest we become soft and easily manipulated. But even in those worlds, those societies, to me the overlying message, were “even if we are different, those differences can become our strengths, we can all live and play happily in the same playground, and there can be enough for everyone.”

Narratives such as these fed my internal sense of needing to be “up there,” and over the years I have always kept this dream, this aspiration alive in the back of my mind, knowing somehow, someway I would be part of this imaginary wonderful world when it became reality.

Sputnik launched in 1957, and therein the Space Race began. In 1958 President Eisenhower signed legislation that gave birth to NASA, the nation’s distinctly civilian space program that would also focus on aerospace and aeronautics research, encouraging a peaceful, not military application of space science.  Government funded, up until recently, all space exploration programs and launches were under the control of NASA.  While NASA subcontracted industries such as Boeing and Rockwell to help build spacecraft and propulsion systems, only NASA could launch. The Apollo Missions, Space Shuttle program, Skylab, the International Space Station – all extraordinary feats of achievements, overall with “little” cost of human life.  But loss there was, one life is too many. We have learned and gain from everyone’s sacrifices – Apollo 1, Columbia, Challenger, too many lives lost, but not in vain.

I remember exactly where I was when it happened.  I was a freelance concert promoter at the time, in Houston for one of my shows.  It was morning, and I was getting ready for the day, sad that I once again I could not witness a shuttle launch in person, but was grateful for the television coverage, and even more grateful that I did not have to be anywhere early.  Dressed, breakfast done, coffee in hand, I settled into my chair to watch the Challenger take off.  Shuttle launches then still had an air of “ooh” and “awe” and covered in the news as something special.  This particular flight hosted the first teacher, so many eyes were glued to the TV for this particular launch, including the eyes of children across our nation’s classrooms. 11:39 a.m. EST. The unthinkable happened. Right before everyone’s eyes, an explosion. America stopped breathing for a moment. I sat frozen for who knows how long.

Much has been investigated and researched about this mission, working to understand why it happened, how to prevent a similar disaster, etc. What has had little to no coverage is the way in which the families of those fallen heroes banded together in their grief, collectively committed to carrying on the Challenger’s educational mission. In April 1986 they created the Challenger Center for Space Education – the Challenger Center. They “envisioned a place where children, teachers, and citizens alike could touch the future: to spark youth interest and joy in science and engineering, a spark that could change their lives.”  To accomplish this, they created the Challenger Learning Center.

The first Learning Center opened in 1988 in Houston. To date there are now 45 Learning Centers across the U.S., Canada, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. They all share the same stories about space, about possibilities, through exhibits and artifacts, special events, and hands on experiences through mission control simulations.  Unified in their voices, to date these Centers collectively reach over 400,000 students/year.  How many of these students have been inspired to pursue a career in space exploration?  How many have actually seen the Earth from above, and been changed?

This is one of the many stories I want to learn more about and share with others – the story of the Challenger Centers, and the people who have created them. These families have worked to keep a dream alive, and countless children’s and their families have benefited.  Who knows how many have pursued space related careers, and/or been a source of inspiration themselves?  What sparks of inspiration gained from these visits have resulted in the very innovations that is helping to open up the commercial space travel and space tourism industry today?

The stories of the creation of the Challenger Center have been minimal in the public eye.  Likewise have the stories regarding the potential role of space-oriented science centers within the context of the emerging commercial space and space tourism industry been minimal. Maybe there is no story, but I think there is, especially given the intentional partnerships Spaceport America in New Mexico and Spaceport Sweden have with their Visitor Center and Science Center, respectively.  As with the Spaceports themselves offering destination tourism opportunities such as suborbital, simulated weightless, and/or Northern Lights flights, so too are their respective centers marketed as destination tourism opportunities that offer gathering spaces for people to learn from and interact with exhibits, conduct (simulated) science experiments, engage in public dialogue, or hold group meetings/conventions.  Regardless of how the public interacts with these centers, they will be influenced by a narrative and vision about space travel – what will that narrative be?

Not all Science Centers will be associated with Spaceports.  Not all Spaceports will have Science Centers as part of their business model.  Formal or informal, the partnership is an option more so than ever, creating an opportunity to reflect upon the narratives being shared. In addition to the movies, TV shows, science fiction stories, commercials, memes that are being created and shared, in my view Space–oriented Science Centers have an extraordinary opportunity to help shape and share narratives about space travel and exploration. Do they need to all share the same story?  Can they be a major resource by which global narratives about space travel and exploration are crafted and shared with a unified voice, similar to that of the Challenger Centers? If so, what would be the message, the main narrative? Who decides? I don’t know, but I am looking forward to learning.

For all its challenges NASA gave us an idea of a vision within their purpose: “… encouraging a peaceful, not military application of space science.” I like the sound and feel of that.  Star Trek endures, and its concept of peaceful missions of exploration still gives me hope in spite of the way in which the story timelines have been changed in the last Star Trek movie (it’s just not right!). I remember it is a story, and stories can be changed.  So can the narratives by which we talk about space travel, and their subsequent influence on the ways in which events unfold that will enable myself and to others realize dream of going to space. Personally, I prefer not being in tiny tin can when I go.

I am looking forward to finding ways to converse with others to find and develop ways that influence the process of creating these narratives.  I am looking forward to being part of that which inspires and prepares the next group of astronauts, space tourists, space citizens, scientists and engineers, politicians – everyone – as we prepare to explore the Final Frontier.

Maybe I wasn’t born too early.  Maybe, just maybe, I was born right on time.

Brenda Trinidad is a PhD student in ASU’s HSD program.