Passing the Torch of Discovery

My 12-year-old daughter and I had the pleasure of attending the space shuttle launch while on vacation in Florida last week.  For me, it was a bookend to a long interest in space travel that began with the Apollo launches I watched on TV when I was in grade school in Oklahoma, continued with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center as a high school student in Texas, and included watching the first space shuttles land when I was a college student in California.  Those long ago activities inspired me to become interested in science and ultimately pursue a degree in engineering. And last week I could see the same process having its affect on my daughter, Tina-Marie, as she watched the spectacular liftoff of one of America’s last space shuttles and as she learned about U.S. plans to transition to a new generation of space vehicles. 

Tina-Marie’s excitement level is clear in the journal entries she wrote for school, including this one about her visit to the orbiter processing facility: “I was able to see the bottom of a shuttle! The bottom of a shuttle is sustained by a special tile to protect it from the heat of reentry.  These tiles are all different, so they have to make hundreds of unique tiles! I was also lucky enough to see the engines, they were just humongous! They make the shuttle go faster than a rifle bullet! This was something I have always wanted to see and now I have!”

The launch itself was the highlight, of course. Again, Tina-Marie’s excitement is palpable in her write-up: “When I was waiting outside the countdown started, my heart was beating quickly till it finally came to zero. Suddenly a huge puff of smoke came out from the right then left… there was no sound as the shuttle lifted off. About 15 seconds later a huge wave of sound came…. you could hear every little thing the shuttle did, every little crackle it made. When the booster rockets separated from the fuel tank, it was successful. It all had been over and only in minutes, amazing.”

Watching my daughter thrill to the launch—and counting the number of exclamation points in her school journal entries!—makes it obvious that this was a trip my daughter will remember for the rest of her life.  Perhaps, as my own childhood experiences did, it will even inspire her to become part of the next generation of scientists and engineers. Knowing first-hand what a rewarding experience that can be, and appreciating as well how important science and engineering are to the economic and technological future of our Nation, nothing could make me prouder.

Deborah Stine is Executive Director of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

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