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Jun 08

A chance to share my passion for science with a group of high schoolers

This week, I had an opportunity to share some words with students who had taken part in a NASA Science Writing Challenge with the UGA Griffin campus. The top three students were awarded a trip to advanced space academy. Here are the words I shared with them.

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Thank you for inviting me to be here with you this evening as we honor a commitment you made to exploration and science. To come to this moment, you have dared mighty things. You seized an opportunity that has brought you to this place.

Dare Mighty Things. What does that mean to you? In 1899 addressing a group in Chicago, Theodore Roosevelt shared words that have inspired many: Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

Over the past year, these words: Dare Mighty Things have become very important to me. Words to live by; a challenge. I hope by the end of this evening they will come to mean something to you.

Dare Mighty Things. As I reflect on what has brought us to this moment, I am reminded of how the history of science is alive with people who dared mighty things in the course of exploration.

Copernicus who through his observations and mathematical calculations dared to share a radical new idea: the sun – not the Earth – is the center of the solar system.

Galileo: who took a carnival toy and turned it into the scientific instrument we know as a telescope. Then, gazed heavenward and discovered that Jupiter has its own mini solar system. He also observed Venus going through phases like the moon. Both giving new evidence towards Copernicus’ sun centered view of the solar system. He also saw sunspots and the features of the moon.

Newton: who used a prism to break white light into colors. Who explained the laws of gravity and motion. One of his laws for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction is the very principle that allows our rockets to launch to space. And as they reach escape velocity we can pull away from the tug of gravity that holds us to planet Earth.

Einstein: who explained general relativity and the fabric of space-time. Who authored the most famous equation e=mc2 explaining how matter can become energy and energy matter.

These are just a few in our history who challenged accepted ideas, presented new evidence, and made incredible gains in the exploration of science. Because they dared mighty things.

In the 1960s, we began to dare mighty things as we turned our eyes to the heavens. Just 58 years after Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first successful flight, the US sent a man into space. Only eight years later, we landed two me on the moon and returned them safely to the Earth.

We won glorious triumphs, but those triumphs were checkered by failure. For instance, the Apollo 1 fire that almost brought the dream of landing men on a moon to a standstill.  Apollo 13. Three astronauts stranded in a crippled command module who against all odds survived because failure was not an option – many worked tirelessly to return Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise safely to Earth. Yet the mission itself is called a successful failure: even though the mission objectives were not met, all three astronauts returned safely to Earth. When we dare mighty things, we may find glorious triumphs, but we may find failure. It is important that we use those failures as steps to continued success.

As the Apollo program was winding down, plans were already beginning for the shuttle program, and that’s where my personal story of the love of exploration begins.

I grew up in Florida and I have loved the idea of space exploration for as long as I can remember, I have even dreamed of being an astronaut. When it became obvious that being vertically challenged, among other things, would not allow me to be an astronaut, I still continued to dream of space and exploration.

I finally found my calling when I became a teacher. My desire to inspire others and make a difference found purpose in sharing my passion for space, for science, for exploration with students.

In May of 2010, I had the amazing opportunity to see a shuttle launch from the press site of Kennedy Space Center. It was STS-132, the expected final flight of Atlantis. As I stood there watching and feeling the power of the launch, I was amazed. Amazed at what we can accomplish when we dare mighty things. It reminded me of the time as a child when I looked up and saw the broken pieces of Challenger in the sky above me. Standing there seeing Atlantis launch, I was reminded that even in the face of failure, we continued to dare and explore. The launch was one of those incredible experiences that only served to fuel my passion for space. My students and I remained in contact with each other while I was at the launch through blog posts and twitter, and when I returned I was able to share the experience in more detail with them. This is still a favorite memory I share with my students today, and this one experience served as a kick off an even stronger passion for space and exploration.

In December of 2010, I applied for a scholarship to attend Space Academy for Educators. I had always wanted to go to space camp, but I never had the opportunity. I had applied the previous year, but I was not accepted. At that time, I was devastated at the thought of this failure. Yet even then, I knew that I would continue to try until I was successful. What’s important in the face of failure is not giving up. The second time I applied to space camp, I was accepted and I headed to space camp in June of 2011. It turned out to be another life changing experience for me. I promised myself to try every opportunity no matter how scary or crazy it might be. I am so glad that I did. For instance, I had my reservations about the Space Shot, but it turned out to be one of the activities I remember most fondly. With Team Columbus, I became mission specialist, flight director, rocket designer, and engineer. I was challenged to bring back new opportunities for my students, and I learned the true meaning of being part of a team. I was also reminded about how important play is to learning. The year after I attended camp, I started a space club at my school, initiated an annual space night as part of International Observe the Moon Night, and worked with my colleagues to share space camp activities with our students. That same summer I had the unimaginable privilege to be standing once again at the press site watching Atlantis lift off on her true final flight which was also the final flight of the entire space shuttle program. Now that the shuttle program is over, many people think that our time in space is coming to a close. But this is not true. Not quite one year ago, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars. Over the past months, the mobile science laboratory that is the rover has been conducting science experiments on the surface of another planet! We have had a continuous presence is space for the past ten years. For ten years, not a day has gone by when there have not been people living in space! Our dreams and things we dare may be changing and adapting, but they are not forgotten.

When I was at space camp, I learned about advanced space academy. The same scholarship program that brought me to space camp also had an opportunity to attend advanced camp. I submitted a portfolio showing all of the things I had brought to my classroom, school, and community after attending space camp and then I waited. I knew being chosen for advanced academy the first year was a long shot, and I really did not expect to be chosen. However, I knew I had to try, even before I knew about daring mighty things. I found out in the spring of last year that I had been chosen for advanced space academy. This turned out to be an even more life changing event for me than my previous first year at space camp had been. I became a part of Team Kennedy, a group of 15 educators from the US, Canada, India, and Australia. We spent 10 days together doing amazing things. On our first experience together, we took turns climbing a 32-foot pole and jumping off it. It was the ultimate team building experience! We road tripped down to Kennedy Space Center for a behind the scenes tour where we drove on the road around Launchpad 39A, stopped and walked on the crawlerway,  and gaped in awe inside the massive VAB. Then, we stopped in the Orbiter Processing Facility and walked around and underneath Atlantis. Atlantis – the very orbiter I had watched launched on her final two flights, and I stood under her! Then, while at the Saturn V Center, we sat in the lunar theater and watched the show. And that’s when we learned about daring mighty things.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

After that, these words, dare mighty things, became a challenge within our team. What mighty things could we dare? And even though it’s been almost a year since we met at space academy, we are still in continual contact today thanks to technology and things like Facebook and Google Hangouts. This past January, a few of us decided to dare a mighty thing together – to apply to be part of NASA’s reduced gravity flight program. If you fly in parabolas in a jet like a 727, you can simulate weightlessness for 18-24 seconds at the top of the parabola. (Of course you also simulate 2G’s at the bottom of the parabola!) Two of us had applied for the opportunity together before without success, but I looked at a chance at flying in microgravity and experiencing weightlessness as that next step in my imaginary astronaut training. (I just can’t let that dream go!) We poured ourselves into our application, and found out a few weeks later that we had been accepted as one of only seven teams this summer! And next month, I will be traveling to Houston’s Johnson Space Center as part of this incredible experience. We’ll be performing an experiment testing fabric absorbency to see if there might be a better answer to cleaning up spills in space.

This past year as I have learned about daring mighty things, I have discovered that it is all about finding your passion. I want you to stop and think about your hopes, your dreams, and your passions. Find the things that fuels your fire and makes you burn with excitement. Focus there. Set goals. And start daring. Do not worry about failing. Failing is necessary on the path to success. Failures help us to learn, and failures make successes more triumphant. You dared to enter the NASA Science Writing Challenge. By being here, you all have found a success. I want you to know that no matter what the outcome is tonight you should continue to focus on your passions and continue to dare mighty things.

And as you continue to dare mighty things, you will fail. The important thing is to not let failures keep you from trying, to keep you from daring. There is so much that we have yet to explore and do as we learn about the universe around us. We learn about how fragile our planet really is as we leave it. Several astronauts have commented on this. William Anders, part of the Apollo 8 crew that was first to orbit the moon said. “We came all of this way to discover the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

A little over a month ago my students had the opportunity to chat with Will Stefanov, the Chief Earth Scientist as Johnson Space Center while on NASA TV. We learned through the chat how space based observations are helping us gather data on Earth about climate change, ocean temperatures and currents, geology, population growth, and weather. Space brings us together. Space helps us dare.

Yes, we’ve sent men to the moon and we have lived in space orbiting above our fragile planet. But what lies ahead? Returning to the moon? Traveling to Mars? Commercial spaceflight? Landing on an asteroid? Sending probes to Europa, a moon of Jupiter and Titan, a moon of Saturn? (These two moons harbor the best chance of finding life outside of our fragile planet.) As we reach beyond our planet we find new wonders. I love the photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. Through them I dream and wonder what we will find as we continue to explore. Now, we are searching for – and finding – planets outside of our own solar system. To date, we have found 132 confirmed planets in the habitable zones of their parent stars. There is so much more for us to learn and to explore. How will you be a part of it?

So, I remind you. Find your passion– in science, in math, in engineering, in technology, in writing, in creating, designing –  whatever it may be, find your passion and focus on it. When it comes to those things that excite you, make sure you dare mighty things. Don’t let an opportunity pass you by because you did not dare. For me, my passion, my dare mighty things is still surrounded in my loves of exploration, space, and getting to share my passion for science with students. Do not let circumstances let you lose sight of your dreams. Don’t let failures keep you from daring. One day, I still hope to get to space. Why? Because I am not afraid to dare mighty things. I hope that you will take up my challenge and dare mighty things yourself.

Remember: Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

DARE MIGHTY THINGS! What mighty thing will you dare next? Thank you.

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