Saturday, July 9, 2011

Dreaming of the Night Sky

By the time I was 12, I was already completely obsessed with space. I had one dream- to be an astronaut. I ate, slept, and breathed space. I had models of shuttles and jets hanging around my room. I spent my nights with my eye pressed to my telescope. I was obsessed and my obsession was fueled by dreams of living in space and all the opportunities that were possible if we dreamed, stretched out our fingers and reached for the stars. When I realized by horrible eyesight would keep me out of the Navy and flying jets, and hence the space program, I was heart broken. But then I discovered that NASA tested their equipment underwater, and hence my obsession transferred to SCUBA diving and exploring the mysteries of the deep.

"I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly - or ever - gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe. " Brian Greene

In 1988, I didn't yet know that my blind as a bat eyesight would bar me from my dreams and so a lot of dreams came true when I attended Space Camp. I was a little disappointed that it was the one in Florida, and not Huntsville, as I was a purist, but I was excited, nonetheless. I poured over my Space Shuttle manual, imagined I would one day be Wesley Crusher and had no doubt that by the time I was an adult, that we would not only be exploring space, but living there and stretching the boundaries of human imagination.

One of my counselors at camp was an engineer on Challenger, a tragedy still fresh in everyone's mind. I was in fifth grade, all of us crowding around the television watching that brave teacher going into space. And none of us really understood the images that came next. Yet, none of us sitting in that classroom ever had a doubt that we would try again, soar again, continue to go into space and experience things that were only a dream decades ago.

So it was with great sadness that I have watched the news of the shuttle's program demise. It seems as if we have collectively given up on the dreams of a generation.

We have always been a nation of explorers and dreamers and I wonder what it says about us as a country if we no longer have dreams to reach for. If instead, our only goal is to barely get by, eyes glued to just putting one foot in front of the other, then there is nowhere to go. I understand that times are hard all the way around. But the hardest times of our history have also been defined by our ability to look above these difficult times and dream. The difficulty of the Cold War led to the great Space Race. The The Great Depression to the wonderful programs of the WPA. The displacement of the Industrial Revolution to the expansion in the West.

Unfortunately, the canceling of the space program seems to be a symptom of a much larger problem- as a nation, we seem to have lost the ability to dream. I see it in my students. When I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they don't want to be astronauts, or scientists. They don't want to explore the depths of our oceans or the far reaches of space. They want to be rappers and NFL/NBA players. The romance of exploration is lost on them. And I wonder what the future holds when we no longer create dreamers, when the world we create for our children no longer encourages them to dream the impossible dream and imagine the unimaginable.
Where would we be if Yeager hadn't wanted to see how fast he could go- despite the fact that common wisdom at the time told him it was impossible? If Kennedy hadn't inspired generations with his bold statement that we would place a man on the moon, despite the fact that scientists had no earthly idea at the time how to do it?
"Later, I realized that the mission had to end in a let-down because the real barrier wasn't in the sky but in our knowledge and experience of supersonic flight." Chuck Yeager   

Scientists, engineers, authors, poets, filmmakers and explorers have been inspired, and inspired each other by their ability to look to the sky and see not what is, but what they can think up, despite the fact that it seems impossible. How many scientists and engineers read science-fiction and thought- "Hey, I can do that!"? How many authors, unfettered by reality imagined a world of computers and space stations, never dreaming they were creating a reality with their words?

I was never able to get down to Florida to watch a shuttle lift off. I never felt the vibrations, never saw the huge cloud. But that doesn't mean that I don't still believe in the dream of it all. I believe that we only achieve the ability of our greatness when we reach for our dreams, whether or not we get there. And I am saddened that so many of our future generations don't seem to have dreams imbued with the purity of imagination. I worry about what it means when we have kids who only dream of achievements that increase their bank account and prestige and not their hearts and souls.
I however, will continue to look to the skies and dream of what is possible...
"No sight that human eyes can look upon is more provocative of awe than is the night sky scattered thick with stars." Llewelyn Powys   

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