Short talk given to the Junior League of Northern Virginia at an event to raise seed money for their signature project, the Children’s Science Center, Saturday evening, March 6, 2010.
When I was little, I lived in Texas, and then Mississippi. My parents, like all parents, wanted to give me every advantage as I grew up, but in Texas and Mississippi, there weren’t many. Still, they took me to every art museum, discovery center, and state fair that there was, and they encouraged me to touch, to listen, to ask questions about what we saw.
When we lived in Houston, there was a special trip to the Johnson Space Center. JSC was a workplace then, with a few displays in the badging area to mollify visitors. It was a small space, with pieces parts from various missions. But when I walked in, I was overwhelmed. There, where I could touch them, were artifacts from the dawn of the space age. Protective spacesuits from Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. And, at the end, a wall of fame of pictures of each of the fifty-some astronauts to go into space.
I held my mother’s hand tightly, then squeezed it to get her attention.
Mommy, I asked her, why aren’t there any women astronauts?
She didn’t know the answer. My Daddy didn’t either. But that day they helped me write the question down on a slip of paper and put it in the comment box at the exit. That day I decided that I would one day be one of them. I would work for NASA.
I was three years old.
I kept that memory with me, and I worked hard.
After my Ph.D., I went to NASA Headquarters, eventually becoming the Discovery Program Scientist. I didn’t fly into space myself, but I ran the selections for the next missions to go into space and explore the solar system. The planets, the asteroids, the comets that no one had ever visited in person could be explored through these new missions, and they were.
After five years, I left Headquarters to do my own research and raise my own children, happy preschoolers now who delight in exploring new places.
Now I take them to children’s museums whereever my work takes me —
- The Exploratorium in San Francisco;
- The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia;
- The Sciencenter in Ithaca; and
- The Magic House in St. Louis.
They love it, and so do I. They love exploring these places, touching, trying, and asking questions. They ask me all the time to go back to the Magic House, but of course, that’s a thousand miles away.
I take them to these museums because I remember how important the museum experience was to me, and I want to see the light of discovery in their eyes.