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Personal Essay | Space Exploration Day 2016

By Jessica Grey

“It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice, really; it’s an imperative.” – Michael Collins

S&C SED2016 Photo 1. Collins, Aldrin, and Armstrong

I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t completely enthralled by space. The appreciation for and curiosity about the vastness of our universe instilled in me by my mother has always been a source of comfort, wonder, excitement, gratitude, and hope. By the time I was three, I had decided I was going to be an astronaut, and Mom and I would watch broadcasts of every shuttle launch we could. I backed off of my insistence on becoming an astronaut after the Challenger tragedy, but my fascination with space and space exploration never abated.

(CN: ableist language at the beginning of the song – 1983 was a different time)

When I was a child, I struggled with finding my place among my peers and among my very large extended family. Instead of coming up with some sort of theory about my having been adopted or switched at birth, I was convinced that I was an alien, left on Earth as a part of an ethnographic study of humanity. I’d gaze up at the sky and wonder which of those stars hosted the planet I was really from; I thought that maybe my long-held fascination with space was really homesickness. There are two facts I wish I could go back in time and whisper into that little girl’s ear: first, that she’s not broken or alien, she’s just different and that is okay and, second, that she really is from the stars—we all are. Like the brilliant Carl Sagan said, we are, each of us, “made of star-stuff.”

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have witnessed a shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral in person. After NASA ended the shuttle program, I found myself in Washington, D.C. and I made it a priority to go to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum Annex where Space Shuttle Discovery is retired. I wept. Seriously, I stood under the shadow of Discovery and cried like a baby. It had been in space! In my lifetime! I’d watched so many of its launches and here I was standing next to it! It bore the scars of numerous liftoffs and reentries and it was beautiful.

S&C SED2016 Photo 2. Discovery & Me

My enthrallment is about so much more than just a singular shuttle or a singular part of the space program. I find the contemplation of something so vast, majestic, and bizarre as the universe—or even our, comparatively, minute galaxy—to be profoundly moving. It is understanding, in my own limited way, the long and unlikely chain of events that led to the creation of our galaxy, our solar system, our planet, and our species that fills me with profound gratitude for my very existence. It is magnificently beautiful that, in the midst of such an enormous and dynamic environment, we came to be, we exist, we thrive, we form relationships, we collectively strive to understand the world around us. Ultimately, I think that is what Space Exploration Day is about: in as much as it marks the anniversary of the first moon landing, it is also about celebrating that we are here, that we are curious, that we want to know more about the universe we inhabit that inspires us to keep seeking knowledge. To smash together the thoughts of two geniuses, the aforementioned Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: not only are we in the universe, but “the universe is also in us,” our curiosity and our drive to explore and discover means that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Symphony of Science playlist:

That stars exploded and jettisoned the building blocks of our solar system, which then in turn, coalesced in such a way as to form a planet that would eventually be able to sustain life is, in itself, remarkable. That the same planet would eventually see the birth of a sentient life form that would gaze back at the life-giving stars and try to understand them is, to my mind, nothing short of miraculous.

S&C SED2016 Photo 3. Serbian proverb

So, my fellow living, breathing, intelligent, and curious collections of stardust, Happy Space Exploration Day! May we always strive to help the universe know itself more completely.

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