I wish I could say that I have spent my entire life dreaming of where I’d end up today. Unfortunately, that’s not how it was for me. I always knew that I loved outer Space. There is no doubt that there are few other things that get me as pumped for life as the idea of exploring beyond the Earth. But sometimes it takes us a little soul-searching before we realise what we want to dedicate the rest of our lives to.
I grew up in a family that was very enthusiastic about science and knowledge, with both parents having attended university (so I am incredibly privileged, especially in a country such as South Africa) and intellectual exploration was no stranger to me. I was encouraged to question the world around me, especially the things we were taught by our elders.
It became a sort of challenge during my years at school to have at least one fight per term with a teacher who was dishing out false and outdated information. Almost always it was related to something obscure, something the average pupil wouldn’t consider remotely important. Perhaps that was why I was so ‘talented’ in raising the chagrin of certain teachers. I was the irritatingly persistent teenager arguing with her Biology teacher about whether each of the four tastes (there are actually five, but that’s another debate for another day) were truly isolated to different sections of the tongue.
But it wasn’t arguing with teachers, practising landing a spacecraft on the moon in a pretty primitive computer game or browsing Wikipedia that put me on the path to Space. Ironically, the thing that really set me on this path was a presentation given by my Grade 3 class teacher (a presentation that probably would’ve scared almost anyone else away from the field).
Mrs Murray sat us all down together in the room and pinned a number of printed photographs on the board. They were very small and we had to strain to see them (poor resolution and really basic printers back then).
The first set we saw were in black and white, depicting what looked like characters from science fiction. It was almost impossible to make out the details but we were told that these were the first ‘men on the moon’: climbing down from the Lunar Lander; digging holes in the moon’s surface; planting the American flag; posing for photographs; taking the first moon-selfies (although they, and my teacher, didn’t know yet that this was what they were doing); playing golf; driving around in the moon buggy. I thought this looked like loads of fun! But even then, surprisingly, I never really thought of this as something I would want to do.
It wasn’t until the next set of photos was presented that I was truly converted.
These pictures were in colour, and were a lot closer to home. In fact, every single one was shot from the surface of the Earth. They all depicted gleaming white spaceplanes, posed – on launch pads, mid-take-off, during landing – the Space Shuttle programme. But there was something strange happening.
As the sequence of pictures progressed, we lost sight of the Shuttle hidden inside a strange, enveloping cloud. There was a particular image of what seemed to be a very messy red and white cloud, fluffy tendrils reaching out in all directions, some trailing down to the ground. Our teacher pointed out one of the rocket boosters emerging from the debris – solo. And it began to dawn on us that we were looking at the pictures of a spaceship that had exploded during its launch.
I’m sure the 1986 Challenger Disaster is one that is still fresh in the minds of many of the older generation. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the American school children waiting, and watching the television, in silence, expecting to hear that their own teacher had somehow survived. And their horror to hear, and very much feel, the palpable despair of the NASA ground crew as they announced that all seven crew members including teacher Christa McAuliffe had perished instantly in the explosion. Even today, my heart aches just thinking about it.
My teacher explained it all to us. We were only eight or nine at the time, but she told it all, from the very beginning to the very end. I thought it was incredible that NASA had aspired to send civilians to Space.
But there was no mention of what happened afterwards. There was discussion of the news coverage, of what McAuliffe had been planning to do up there, of the investigation determining the cause of the accident. But there was no talk of future teachers in Space, of any other ambitious NASA projects. It seemed as though America’s enthusiasm may have calmed briefly after Apollo, but had now died alongside McAuliffe and the six other Challenger crew.
I remember asking my teacher why NASA hadn’t tried again with another teacher but she had no solid answers.
It seemed to me very sad that we, as a species, had been on track to do great things, and that we had now given up. That we had stretched our legs briefly, only to curl up once again, safe within the warm and familiar confines of our Earthly beds. That was when the enthusiasm took hold of me. I refused to give up on the excitement that exploring the universe held for all of us. I decided that, if no one else was going to do it, then I would be the one to go to Space. Someone had to go for the rest of us surely! How could we not keep trying? Even though I was not really sure how to go about this in real life, and I didn’t make the connection between my dream and reality for many years, this passion for physics and Space has stuck in the back of my mind ever since.
I spent my high school career at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg, specialising in and loving drama, so perhaps to many it seems strange that I went on to study Astronomy and Astrophysics. Actually, much like Rosie, I never really knew there was a way to live out my dreams. They seemed so far removed from reality that I never really committed to them until I discovered the Astronomy and Astrophysics degree course at Wits University. I hadn’t been expecting to find myself studying at all. By the time I left Matric, I felt that any Science degree would not be worth the pain of the Maths that came with it, and any further study in Humanities would feel like overkill and probably be quite draining.
It feels really weird to be sitting here, in my second year at Wits, unable to imagine doing anything else with my life.
I discovered the degree after already having committed to a gap year, but in all honesty, I’m quite glad I took that break. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met Rozeena. She helped reignite the passion I have for our universe, and we’ve been best friends ever since. It has been quite refreshing to have someone in the same class as me, sharing the same passions, with whom I can have an intellectual debate, and with whom I want to spend time showing the rest of the universe to all the people we meet. We’ve gone on to become enamoured with the idea of writing about our experiences, and it is partly for this reason that AstroSisters came to be.
Looking at the people in my class and in the years above and below, I feel that we all have amazing futures in store. All the people I have met are incredibly enthusiastic and truly joyous to be around. Whatever we go on to do will be special in some way or another. I know some want to go into radio astronomy, for example. Perhaps they will be the first to discover intelligent life in the Cosmos.
I know that Rosie and I dream of going to Space. While that’s quite a difficult dream to achieve, perhaps one day we’ll be Skyping from the ISS. Maybe that won’t pan out and we’ll go into a career in science communcation. Either way, it will be truly exciting, whatever we find ourselves doing. I look forward to ten years from now, and where Rosie and I will find ourselves. With any luck, this blog may be the first chapter in a much greater and grander tale of the Cosmos coming to know itself!