Of Shuttles and Star Parties


The space shuttle Discovery aboard its transport, Tuesday 4/17/2012. I totally stole this photo from my classmate, Jay Thompson, who was lucky enough to be in Washington, D.C. to take this picture!

After the space shuttle Discovery was ferried across the sky on the back of a specially-equipped 747 from The Kennedy Space Center to its new home at the Smithsonian, I was filled with a sense of bittersweet nostalgia. I grew up along with the shuttle program, as well as anything else that had to do with NASA and space. I probably watched close to every launch on the news if I wasn’t in school when they occurred.

If you asked most little girls in my kindergarten class what they wanted to be when they grew up, you would generally get a range of answers from ballerina to teacher, while a select few would opt for attorney or doctor. But, I was the only one who wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot. This desire and love of all things space and flight-related was in part later fostered by my amazing fourth grade teacher who not only started and headed my elementary school’s ‘Young Astronaut’ program, but also built a ¼ size scale model of the space shuttle’s cockpit. She expertly attached white and black plastic sheets together that could be essentially blown up with big fans, like a giant balloon, and reinforced with plastic tubing so that it maintained its shape. We could crawl in and out of this “inflatable shuttle,” which we had to blow up in the gym because it was so big, and would have mock missions inside of it after school. It was a thing of beauty, and I don’t think any other classroom in the world had anything like it.

Anyway, aside from Mrs. Greenstein, my dad had always been a major role model in my life first and foremost. He used to be a pilot, and I always remember seeing him fly over my house in his little Piper Archer II. I would know it was him because he would quickly bank the plane back and forth, essentially wiggling the wings; a pilot’s wave from the air. I would point him out to my friends- that was MY dad and he was the coolest. He also has always been an amateur astronomer, and on summer evenings we would set up the telescope and spend the night looking at whatever we could find. He would even wake my mom and me up at whatever super early hour in the morning to see a meteor shower, and helped me put those little plastic glowing stars on my ceiling based on real constellations illuminated from his mini star projector.

These memories are some of the fondest of my childhood. In fact, Mrs. Greenstein would often invite him to come to our Young Astronaut meetings and talk about what it was like to be a pilot, and then he would also talk about how airfoils worked. Another fond memory was a tradition that we all did every year, where my classmates and I, along with our parents and Mrs. Greenstein, would get together at some point in the summer and have what we called a “star party.”

One of the reasons I am writing this post is to spread the idea if you haven’t heard of star parties already- they really are a lot of fun. We would go out to a field in a local park on a nice clear evening, bring as many telescopes as we could find, and aim each at something different in the sky. We would bring snacks, hot chocolate, and flashlights covered with red cellophane to reduce their brightness. We would spend the evening marveling at what we saw, while the adults taught us lessons about the cosmos. It was a humbling experience- realizing just how small we were in the vast scheme of things, and just how amazing the universe is when you are out there looking at it in all its splendor.

This sense of wonder as well as camaraderie has always inspired me to pursue science in school in one form or another. Whether from the grand scale of the universe to the microscopic scale in a biology lab, science has been a part of who I am. However, the National Center on Education Statistics has shown that only a small percentage of high school and college students choose to major in what they call ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. According to their research, students in these majors make up only 16% of all students throughout the country. The main reason that they feel this is the case is due to the sheer difficulty of these fields and the ensuing lack of interest due to this. The center also fears that soon there will be such a lack of students in these fields that the number of people available upon graduation will not be sufficient to meet the U.S. workforce demand.

This needs to change. I feel that if students can be properly inspired, they will have more of a drive to do well in STEM fields. I also feel that a love of science doesn’t just develop overnight. Perhaps an interest may, but a deep love is something that is nurtured over time. Let us find more teachers like Mrs. Greenstein and people like my dad to inspire kids to love science and to want to do well in it. Let parents get more involved in their kids’ education. Let the next generation experience and understand the sense of wonder that I felt throughout my childhood and want to strive to learn more. Maybe it can all start with star parties.