Friday, January 28, 2011

remembering challenger

I was only eight when the Challenger disaster occurred on that icy January morning in 1986. I distinctly remember perching on my chair in Mrs. M's third grade class, eager to watch the launch on the bulky brown television that had been wheeled in so that my fellow classmates and I could feel like we were a part of the action. At the time, it seemed a matter of course—at least to us kids—that people could routinely travel to space and to the moon. Even girls could be shuttle explorers after Sally Ride had flown on the Challenger three years earlier! We were encouraged to include 'astronaut' among our future career choices anytime a grown-up asked. And we did.

Third grade happened to coincide with my first real exposure to astronomy, too. It was the first time, for instance, that I learned about my very eager mother . . . not to mention the pizzas she'd just served us—though there are plenty of folks today who'd urge us to skip the pizza. As a child of the 80s, imagining that someday I, too, might fly through the asteroid belt or make a quick trip to the canyons of Mars seemed a perfectly reasonable ambition. I was ready to sign up.

To add to the excitement of the day, we'd been told that Christa McAuliffe was going to become the first schoolteacher ever, in the history of the world, to travel into space. We knew about this not just because it was all over the news, but because our school's phys ed teacher had also applied for the Teacher in Space program. And boy, did he get us excited about it! I don't recall whether Mr. W ever disclosed how far along in the process he'd reached before being cut, but he'd clearly felt that doing experiments to gauge how microgravity affected physical fitness would have been one of the greatest gifts he could give to students at our elementary school and around the country.

And then . . . the forked puffy cloud. The confusion. The silence.

It's clear to me now that I was too young to truly understand death. I had actually lost a grandmother just a month before, but my still-developing brain prevented me from grasping the enormity of her passing until much later. Obviously it was the same for these seven people I'd never even met. Yet my classmates and I knew right away that something terrible had just happened. And we were all a little scared.

The Challenger incident has stayed with me over the past quarter-century, well into my adult life. My love of all things space grew as time marched on, and when the shuttle program resumed, I once again looked forward to watching launches on the news, and later, on NASA TV. But to this day, there's a palpable anxiousness in the last hour or so before liftoff. And until I hear the "main engine cutoff" call from mission control, my heart remains firmly embedded in my throat. Sadly, ever since the Columbia breakup in 2003, shuttle landings have become equally nerve-wracking for the same grim reasons.

To be sure, I recognize that many of us put our lives on the line every single day. I think of miners and factory workers who endure precarious and downright dangerous conditions on a daily basis. And there are the firefighters, police officers, and other civil servants who purposely risk bodily harm for the sake of the common good. Heck, every time we get behind the wheel we put ourselves at the mercy of road conditions and other drivers. And yet I can't help but get verklempt when I think of the men and women who voluntarily strap themselves to the back of a rocket and hope that a million things go right on their way out to the stars and back. One of my longtime dreams of attending a shuttle launch finally came true last May, and I can assure you that there were tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched that plume reach deep into the brilliant Florida sky. As with every mission since STS-51-L, I was thinking of Challenger that afternoon—and yes, Columbia, too.

So today marks 25 years since that fateful morning back in 1986. I'm now 33, and sad to say I haven't yet booked my flight to the asteroid belt. In 2007, though, Christa McAuliffe's alternate, fellow teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, did eventually carry the torch for educators when she flew aboard the shuttle Endeavor and visited the International Space Station.

The legacies of those lost with the Challenger—Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Smith, and Scobee—live on in all of us who were watching that day. I, for one, will never forget.

Lego photo courtesy of BriXwerX on Flickr

Monday, January 24, 2011

the giants take manhattan

Followers of this blog know that I'm a die-hard Mets fan who bleeds orange and blue through thick and thin. I grew up in the heart of Yankee country, in the New York City suburbs, always having to explain why I followed that other team. Well, readers, it was quite simple; it was because my father grew up following the New York Giants, who called Manhattan home for three-quarters of a century before skipping off to San Francisco in 1957. Dad eventually became a Mets fan when the National League re-established itself here in New York in the early 60s (rooting for the hated Yankees, of course, was never an option). And so, we were a Mets family. But my father always kept the Giants in his heart, and he'd occasionally share stories from his childhood, of catching the bus from our little town down to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and then walking across a bridge into Manhattan to watch the Giants play in their cavernous Polo Grounds, also long gone but not forgotten.

Three years ago I happened upon a newspaper article about a group of old-time New York Giants fans, the kind who still argued about whether Thomson had stolen a sign before his epic shot heard 'round the world, and who sounded a lot like my dad reminiscing about his old team. Not finding much online about the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society, I got in touch with the reporter, who gave me the name of the group's leader, one Bill Kent, of Riverdale, NY. Well, one thing led to another, and I eventually found myself setting Bill up with a listserv so that he could more easily send out notices and share photos and stories with the crew. Since then I've attended a bunch of meetings, sometimes with my father in tow, other times on my own, and I have to say it's always a hoot to hear how passionate these guys are (and it is mostly guys) about the team that abandoned them for sunnier California skies.

And then 2010 happened.

When the San Francisco Giants started getting really good, started looking like playoff contenders, started convincing everyone they might make it to the World Series, a small but devoted group of folks 3,000 miles away from the City by the Bay started feeling the thrill of baseball again. Many of the old timers had remained faithful to the orange and black for all these years. But even those like my father, whose primary allegiance had strayed after the Jints left town, felt a pang of longing for the glory days when, on November 1st, the "fear the beard" crew made it official: the Giants were champions of the world once more.

This weekend, those folks got to be kids all over again. We received word a few weeks ago that the Giants organization had decided to pay tribute to its New York roots by bringing the World Series trophy to the East Coast. Hall of Famer Willie Mays, the Giants' most celebrated ambassador and one of the greatest players to ever don a Major League uniform, thrilled all of Harlem on Friday when he visited a school in his former neighborhood. And the trophy would be on display in midtown the next day for the benefit of Giants fans old and new. In a move of true sportsmanship, the team also invited the Nostalgia Society to a private meeting with not only the trophy, but Giants top brass Bill Neukom (owner) and Brian Sabean (general manager); catcher Buster Posey, the National League's Rookie of the Year; and the "Say Hey Kid" himself, Willie Mays. For guys like my dad, it was like Halloween, Christmas, and your birthday all wrapped into one!

It sure did turn out to be a day to remember. Many of the guys brought their wives and kids, all of whom took turns taking mugshots with the trophy. Everyone was in total awe when Mays came out to greet us, beaming and full of joy. He interviewed Posey for a while and answered questions before signing copies of his biography—which, by the way, the team provided to all of us free of charge. And we heard plenty of stories of old NY Giants memories. It was a moving demonstration of the power that baseball has in bringing people together. While my father and I will continue to hope that the Mets might someday make it back to playoff contention (a girl can dream!), it was truly awesome to have this moment to share with all the other fans in Giants Nation. &infin

Friday, January 07, 2011

carolyn in wonderland: a little video about big things

It's early March, 2007, and planetary scientist Carolyn Porco has just opened the TED conference—a high-profile gathering of the world's brightest thinkers, movers, and shakers—with a bang. Her stirring presentation on the exploits of Cassini-Huygens, a space mission that's been investigating Saturn and its cornucopia of moons since July of 2004, is so inspiring that it goes on to become one of the top-voted talks on all of It is, as they say, fantabulous.

Zoom ahead two and a half years to the waning days of 2009. I'm sitting at my desk, furiously scanning Google for a decent photograph of computer pioneer Ada Lovelace for a short piece I'm writing about her life. Before long, I stumble upon an image that makes me smile from ear-to-ear; it's a portrait of a small LEGO person with garments and hair just as Lady Lovelace would have worn them back in 1850. Almost immediately, my synapses start firing. How cool would it be to make minifigs (as these characters are known in the Legophile vernacular) of current well-known scientists and science popularizers? My first thought is to do one of Carolyn, whom I've been getting to know over the previous months. But I envision mini plastic versions of a number of other scientists and personalities as well . . . and thus, an idea is hatched.

Carolyn's minifig, the prototype for what will become an ever-growing collection of "LEGO scitweeps," is finished a few weeks later. But my creative juices are just getting started, and I find myself longing for a greater challenge: a stop-motion movie. I've never done one of these before and wouldn't even know where to begin. Yet it soon becomes my mission to recreate, in as much detail as possible, Carolyn's 2007 TED talk.

Many hours, quite a few moons (including one total eclipse!), and somewhere around 2,500 photographs later, my project is finally complete. The more vigilant among you might notice a few minor goofs (ahemupsidedownshorelineahem). But otherwise, I’m proud to say that this stop-action replica holds pretty true to the original, even down to the faces in the audience! So if you're as excited as I am about planetary exploration, I hope you'll set aside 18 minutes of your day and allow Carolyn's yellow Doppelgänger to, as she so eloquently enchants, take you on a journey . . . And why not check out these behind-the-scenes pics, while you're at it?