Flying towards Saturn

March 16, 2011

Cassini image of SaturnEver wondered what it would be like to fly into space?  I mean WAY into space? 

Although humans aren’t ready to go back to the Moon or to Mars, we have sent out dozens of spacecraft to the planets and beyond.  Most of the instruments send back data that scientists analyze and tell us what it means.  But on almost every mission, there is also a camera — so that everyone can be part of the experience.  Check out this new video from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft as it heads toward Saturn, just missing cloudy Titan and dry Mimas, two of Saturn’s moons.



Mama, let’s go see the stars

March 13, 2011

“Mama, let’s go outside to see the stars!”  My hopeful four-year-old smiled eagerly at me as he padded over in his footie pajamas, hopeful for a last-minute reprieve from bedtime. 

“Not tonight, sweetie,” I said, “we’ve already read your books and tucked you in.  I’ll be back to snuggle you in a moment.”  I smiled as I tucked in my six-year-old, tousled his blond hair, and gave him an extra hug.  I knew that they just wanted to stay up a little later, but with daylight savings time starting tonight, I had to be the parent and say no. 

I said no, but part of me wanted to go out and show them the stars, to point out constellations to them as my father had to me when I was six years old, as I had to them so often as toddlers and young preschoolers, and to make that memory again, now that they were perhaps old enough to remember.  I wanted to see what they saw, to follow their chubby little pointing fingers as they found stars — and planets, and planes — in the sky, and to tell them tales of far-away worlds and wonders that generations older than theirs are only now beginning to discover, with telescopes in space, adaptive optics, planes, and space planes in which  people will soon be able to take flight, soaring high above the atmosphere, pointing their cameras at the stars and taking pictures and data to explore the space at once nearby and so very far away.  These new techniques are revealing worlds upon worlds of mystery, so much more than I even dreamed of as a child, standing in the driveway with my parents and our printed star chart.

I dreamed that I would be one of those scientists, discovering new worlds, searching new space, finding the planet that I knew — just knew — existed out there, around another sun, just around the astronomical corner from us. 

As it turns out, I’m not.  When I faced the choice to stay and run the amazing Discovery Program of new NASA missions to explore the planets or be home before my kids’ bedtime, I wavered.  I explored my options, and, after a time, there were none.  No one at NASA Headquarters allowed regular telecomuting at the time, and no one allowed part-time work.  I know.  I called in all my chits and went to talk to everyone I knew, in offices from Astrophysics to Heliophysics to Planetary, the Chief Scientist’s Office, and in staff positions, but there was nothing.  No options.  No way to stay at the job of my dreams and also work less than 40 hours a week – 50 including commute time – away from my infant.  No one could even understand why I would want to.

And so, I left my dreams behind, and I came home.  I don’t regret my decision — it was the right one for me — but some nights, when I look up at the sky, or return from fancy planetary science conferences, there is a twinge of curiousity.  Of what might have been.  Of what person I might have been, and in what paradigm shattering research I might have participated.

I sigh and tuck my children into bed.  They snuggle in, warm, safe, and loved, and that reassures me as I go next door to my office to work on my contract work late into the night.

At 5 a.m. my little one stumbled into our room, waking us with tears and news of a potty accident.  As I stripped his bed and changed his clothes, tucking him into our bed for the rest of the night, the stars outside my window caught my eye, and I couldn’t help myself.

“Little Bear, would you like to see the stars?” I asked, knowing that it would be harder to get him back to sleep, but willing to trade rest for the moment of shared experience.  “Right now, Mama?” he asked, surprised at my willingness to interrupt his sleep.  “Right now, Bear.”  I helped him climb on to the chair by my window, and together we gazed out into the dark night, captivated by the two stars that seemed caught in the treetops in the forest.  Another one hung nearby, and he asked me, “Why there only three stars out tonight?” I started to tell him about city lights and interference, and then gave up all hope of getting him back to sleep.  “Put your coat on, Bear.  Let’s go outside to see the stars.” 

He could barely contain his excitement as he wiggled into his brother’s shoes and coat, more easily found in the dark, and we giggled as we snuck onto the driveway, moving away from the house for a better view.  I showed him how to shield his eyes from the streetlight, and together we gazed at the dark sky and bright stars, silent with wonder.

I showed him the big dipper, and he found a planet and a plane, and we drank deeply of the night air and the constellations.  As he started to shiver in the cold, I pointed to the bright north star and said, “See that bright star?” 

And with four-year-old innocence, he said, “Uh-huh.  That’s the dipper,” and turned around to go inside, back to bed, where he would once again snuggle in, safe, warm, and loved, but this time with the memory of the thrill of sneaking outside in the middle of the night, awed by the majesty of the night sky, and alive with wonder at the stars that dot the edges of his experience.

A sweet night out with friends

May 22, 2010

My second course of radiation started this week.  Every morning, I start my day with a quick stop in the radiation center for treatment, take a deep breath, and go on about my day.  It’s not quite as easy as all that, of course, but that’s the way I’m going to look at it, for as long as I can.

After a week, the left side of my chest and my armpit are tender to the touch.  I have sharpie marker stains outlining the treatment field in dashed lines, and I have a few new tattoos too (just dots, but I like to think of them as stars that are very far away).  The thick dashed lines bothered me at first (really, one day, I had red stains, black stains, blue tattoos, and yellow paint marking the treatment areas.  When they brought out the green marker, I  couldn’t decide whether I was an old-fashioned diagram for cutting up beef, or a piece of art.)

Cuts of Beef

If they bring out the barbecue sauce, I’m outta there!

I felt awkward. I felt more than awkward, really.  As the technicians pushed and pulled my body into position where the tattoos lined up exactly with the red beams (remember the security system in Ocean’s Twelve? Psych? Chuck? Dr. Who? White Collar? Ohgoodgrief, what tripe are you watching these days?  And when are they going to add a laser hallway protecting Sue Sylvester’s trophies on that other show we all watch, anyway?) — aw, heck, now I have other things to think about when they’re lining me up with the red “laser-like” beams.

Which is awesome.  It’s all about not getting bogged down in the cancer treatment these days.  Yes, cancer sucks, but I AM MORE THAN THAT.  My life is more than that.  And so, this week I was thrilled beyond belief to go out with my friends TWICE, to pitch new ideas back and forth across the table, to hug their necks and to ask about their kids, and to spend a day and a half working downtown with education and outreach professionals on NASA’s upcoming Year of the Solar System.  Really — does it get cooler than that?  (HEY! It’s cool, ok?)

Back to dinner.  The lovely Miss Jessica asked me to dinner at The Melting Pot in Gaithersburg on Tuesday, and we motored up to join our friends in the private dining room.  It was a good thing we had a room to ourselves, because if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that a room full of mombloggers can be ROWDY.  Oh, I kid.  We were perfectly well-behaved, if you don’t count a couple of extraneous squeals and overzealous hugs when a new friend or twelve walked in.

It was a wonderful night, gathering around the pots o’ cheese (I ate way too much fiesta cheese, but the Feng Shui melted cheese with white wine was awesomely delicious) with parenting expert and friend (lose the guilt!) Devra, Mother in Medicine KC, MamaLaw Justice Fergie (as seen in this month’s Southern Living!), and new friend (recently rediscovered?) Lindsay from RockandRollmama.  The brilliant TeachMama, techie TechSavvyMama, “it girl” Jessica, and I posed for a photo and hashed out a bit of our BlogHer ’10 session on resource blogging. We all tried the main course, cooking shrimp, beef, chicken, and veggie pasta, but we quickly agreed that if we were going to go out together?  We were much more interested in the cheese and chocolate.  Particularly since not a few of us had had to cook for our children before we left for our own dinner.  (Bygones.)

Between courses, I was thrilled to hug the neck of “Fried Apple Pies” Kristen; thoughtful Laurie Writes (who does, and who is available this summer if you need a writer); The Fabulous Miss S (who is, and I should visit her blog way more often!); Lara, who did not actually bring her Chicken Nuggets of Wisdom since dinner was being served, but who did tell me how she and Janine are starting to Bring it to Fruition; Jodifur, whose shoes I really should have noticed; neighbor and summerbuddy Stimey; and the sparkly Thien-Kim.

And then, the chocolate course.  I still have a gooey warm feeling about consuming strawberries and bananas dipped in cookies and cream dark chocolate while catching up with Janine/@Twincident and Urbanmama, although I could have easily been distracted by the brownies dipped in amaretto.  You know, since it was there and we mamas don’t like to waste  food and all.

Anyways.  This post is a shout-out to my blogging friends, who I had a lovely time with (if I didn’t mention you, please blame the chocolate), and something for me to remember:  If I lose a day (Hello, Wednesday) because I spent my spoons the night before, it’s totally worth it.

Disclosure: The Melting Pot D.C. hosted our band of mamas for dinner and dessert at no charge, with a take-home of white chocolate and spice; they’ve also set up a Girl’s Night Out package where you can enjoy exactly what we did, plus a salad I didn’t mention (because who mentions salad?), for $30/person.  Find them on Facebook.

Children’s Museums

March 10, 2010

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.