I was a rare kid who never wished to become an astronaut. Instead, I dreamed about becoming the people who respond when astronauts say “Houston we have a problem”.
I had to tell that to astronaut Mike Fossum.
It was in the bar after a day full of NASAsocial activities that I summoned the courage. At moment I morphed in the embarrassing fan, a techie equivalent of crazed Justin Bieber teenagers. It was then that I poured my heart in adoration. I had to tell him. “I live vicariously through you”, I said.
I received an invitation from NASAsocial headquarters to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston. My heart almost stopped with the chance to see mission control with my own eyes. Owen Software made it possible by sponsoring the trip, so I spent a day marveling at the Soyuz capsule, Saturn V rocket, and space station replicas. I even drove a Mars rover simulator. But I was not prepared to have such a heartfelt conversation with one of the icons of the space program: an astronaut.
When I said “I live vicariously through you”, I meant “you” as in an astronaut collective. I wanted to tell Mike, as a proxy for the body of astronauts and cosmonauts, that I’ve followed their journeys from the ground.
Mike Fossum has three space flights and seven spacewalks under his belt. It was after a few engineering degrees, air force experience, and seven tryouts that he was accepted into the astronaut program in 1998.
I was honest. “I don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut,” I paused in embarrassment, “I don’t have that personality.” At this point Mike looks at me more attentively (perhaps trying to appease the crazed fan expression?) I explained I always wished to be the observer and the supporter. “I wished to be the one who answers when you call Houston with a problem, which is why I became a scientist”.
I said my piece. I was relieved; it was out of my chest. I could go home now. Step out of the bar and into a plane back to DC. My job was done, and my 5-year old self rejoiced. But Mike kept the conversation going, he told me something I’ll never forget.
At a neuroscience lab that day in Houston, one of the researchers explained that astronauts have to re-adapt to gravity when they return to Earth. They even have balance and coordination issues, and therefore are not allowed to drive for a while. “They have to be chauffeured around for three weeks, which astronauts hate because they are very driven people”, the neuroscientist told us. My first instinct was incredulity: who wouldn’t love to be chauffeured around? I would, which is probably why I’m not an astronaut. Later that same day, astronaut Mike Fossum proudly told me he started sneaking out to drive only four days after he was back on Earth.
Mike asked me what kind of scientist I am. “Biophysicist”, I said, “I work with DNA, proteins, molecules.”
That’s when he tells me “Well, I could never do what you do – I don’t have that personality”. An astronaut told me HE COULD NOT DO WHAT I DO. The man floats in space in a glorified diving suit tethered to a rope between him and oblivion so he can build us a flying research lab. He proceeded to shake my hand, enveloping it with both his hands, and paused. His casual tone was briefly replaced by an ominous one. “You are an explorer too – of microscopic worlds – you are a scientist.”