Atlantis and Good Luck

13 Jun

As astronomy-focused as the first few posts on this blog will no doubt be, neuroscience will always be my favorite field of study and my first scientific love (and incidentally my major).  But before neuroscience, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer.  My other major is Creative Writing.  So it’s particularly ridiculous that I’m having such a difficult time putting my feelings about being invited to STS-135 into words.

There was, of course, the shock, followed by the frustration of trying to explain what I’d won quickly and clearly enough that my friends and family would be properly excited (still working on that one).  There was the disbelief, the rereading of the email, and the wait for the second confirmation email, to make sure there hadn’t been some sort of mix-up.  For a while, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was–and I think that luck is a hard thing to put into words, let alone to believe in.

I think what it might boil down to is belief and disbelief (coincidentally the states of being that first got me interested in neuroscience).  I believe that NASA is one of the most worthwhile human endeavors in all of human history.  Sure, there are a few other things that come close to the Moon landing—penicillin, the polio vaccine, the collected works of Joss Whedon.  And hopefully we as a species will continue to produce such useful and important things, to be worthy of the universe that we are lucky to be able to observe, and to be worthy of each other.

There are problems in modern neuroscience the solution of which would rival the important scientific advances of the past century—not to mention cures for cancer, clean energy, and all the other problems we face.  Those discoveries, I believe and hope, await the hard work of skilled and well-meaning people all around the world.

So, I believe in mankind’s need to explore the frontiers of space, just as we need to explore the frontiers of the brain.  And I believe the exploration we’ve done so far in both fields has made us all who we are today.

July 20th, 2009 was the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing–I listened to the live replay of the mission audio every free minute, and Michael Collins’ “Listen, babe. Everything’s going just swimmingly” has become my own personal “Keep Calm & Carry On.”

On one hand, manned space flight was nearly three decades old when I was born.  It’s always been around, and easy to take for granted.  On the other hand, part of me felt like I had missed the glory days.  Man walked on the moon long before I was born, yes—but no human being has stepped onto the surface of another world in my lifetime.

Maybe what I’m feeling is really about lasts and firsts.  I am meticulous about recording and recalling these:  the first time I voted; the last day of high school; the first day of college classes; the first Moon landing; the last shuttle launch.  First things and last things are important, and while I would feel incredibly privileged to be attending any shuttle launch, seeing the end of the program has an even deeper meaning.

So I still cannot believe how lucky I am.  I was lucky to be invited to the tweetup, lucky that I discovered my love of science in general and of astronomy in particular, lucky that my parents have always supported my love of learning and complete nerdiness, lucky to have been born at all, lucky to have been born between Apollo and Hubble, between man’s first steps off this planet and whatever comes next.

Ultimately, the end of the shuttle program is the beginning of whatever comes next in our collective search for knowledge.  And seeing the enthusiasm of everyone involved in NASA and this tweetup makes me believe that whatever comes next will be just as amazing as that first Moon landing.

To paraphrase Carl Sagan (because what else is there to do, at this point?), in the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy and privilege to share a planet and an epoch with everyone who is making this experience possible.

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