July 27, 2015

On Space Nerds and Becoming Your Mother

My basic internal leaning is in the nerd direction. I think even if I had grown up with jock or preppy parents, I would have still eventually found my people. As it was, some of my earliest memories (the kind that scar) are of the kind of sci-fi films that young, impressionable children should probably avoid.

Speaking of which, can I get a shout out from anyone traumatized early in life by that dang ear bug in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? I can’t watch that movie even now as an adult, but imagine a toddler, camped out in the back of a station wagon in her Barbie sleeping bag. My family only had one car, and my dad worked a late night bus run, so my mom would park at the drive-in movie lot next to the bus yard to wait for him, kids bundled in the back and presumably too tired to really watch said movies.

I should note my mom is a massive space nerd. She grew up in the Mercury-Apollo era of space missions, eagerly watched Neil Armstrong take one small step for man, and was convinced that her turn in space was coming. In the halcyon starry-eyed days of the early 80’s, when anything was possible, that dream hadn’t left her. Since she was a stay-at-home mom with three kids in tow, she assuaged that urge by watching as many sci-fi movies as she could.

So there I am, laid out in the back of the station wagon, dramatic tinny sci-fi Theremin booming through the little speaker box. And of *course* I’m watching the movie through the gap in the front seats, because I have always been an insomniac and there was nothing better to do. At the tender age of three or four, the greater plot points were obviously lost on me. I knew that there were spaceships, that there was a bad guy, and he had done bad things to the good guys (who I recognized from their regular appearance on our daytime television lineup). Nothing I had seen, though, prepared me for the ear trauma.

If none of you are old people the way I am old people, you may not have been exposed to the urban myth of earwigs. We’d hiss to each other on the playground that if you weren’t careful when you slept, or didn’t clean your ears, an earwig would crawl into your ear and eat your brain. This was considered the inevitable fate of some children, and everyone knew someone third or fourthhand that had to go to the ER to have one removed, howling in pain the whole time. When you flipped over a rock or a stick on the playground and an earwig crawled out, you ran the hell away. If you were a socially-minded individual, you shouted warnings to the other kids, but if it was nearby, it was every kid for themselves.

Thus prepared by playground old wives tales, seeing that gigantic-pinchered monstrosity crawl out of the crewman’s bloody ears had me paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t even scream, I was so scared, so I’m fairly certain I just silently cried into my sleeping bag until I fell asleep. That scene is permanently burned into my memory, even though I remember almost nothing else about that movie. I think I slept with one ear pressed firmly to the pillow and one hand clamped firmly over the exposed ear for the better part of five years.

And that wasn’t even the worst movie we watched, you guys.

Here’s a list of just the movies that I remember, and their associated ridiculous fears:

  • Aliens (would not walk around blind corners in a dark hallway until I was 12)
  • ET (assumed that something weird and brown was going to waddle out of my closet and get me)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (lived in terror of car lights out my window until in my late teens…still irrationally afraid of being abducted by aliens even today (I don’t even believe in alien abduction, you guys…well, not until 3 am alone in bed, anyway))
  • The Thing (anything or anyone I didn’t know, or possibly people I knew, were going to morph into a monster and eat my face)
  • The Last Starfighter (the clone melting into the bed…GUH, I just…HNGH)

This is not even delving into the constant barrage of B movies that ran on daytime television, and Doctor Who’s monster-of-the-week (and just a teensy bit Tom Baker’s goggly eyes). It was coming from all sides, and I was more or less convinced I was doomed to an eventual monster-related demise.

Funnily enough, my mom woke us up early to watch Space Shuttle launches in my childhood, which means I had a live view of Challenger blowing up on the news at the tender age of seven. Oddly, seeing real people blow up on live television didn’t scar me, though to be fair it was just a tiny speck of fire on our TV screen, and my tiny human brain didn’t grasp the importance of that (not enough scary monsters or slime, I’d wager).

I should mention that I am basically a coward (surprise, right?). They say there are two kinds of people in the world. Those that want to fly the spaceship, and those that want to talk to the spaceship from mission control. My mom falls squarely into the first category. Content to watch from mission control, or look at the pretty pictures the probes sent back, I fall into the latter. But space travel, and space technology, it was always there, humming in the background radiation of my world.

I’m not sure when exactly the switch flipped in my own mind. Possibly during one of the many planetarium laser light shows I saw at The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Possibly in the constant bombardment of educational TV as produced by every big name science nerd from Carl Sagan to Mister Wizard to Bill Nye. I knew I was already gone when I worked one freeway exit away from Goddard Space Flight Center and looked at it longingly every time I drove past. Looking at the cool technology the engineers at NASA were building online, seeing the resurgence of public interest in space flight, I came to the realization.

I am my mother’s daughter. My first real novel was a science fiction piece about rogue stars that could think. If given the opportunity to build something for NASA, I would jump at it. I started learning computer engineering with the idea that I want to build even better cool things that the current cool things I see. I backed the Smithsonian’s Kickstarter to preserve and display Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit for display at the National Air and Space Museum (and Alan Shepard’s if they reach their stretch goal). My favorite books are sci-fi and fantasy. I gobble up the new Cosmos and every new show and documentary I can find.

My enthusiasm for the information pouring from New Horizons was unmatched by even my mother. I text my family with excitement when things like Kepler 452b are found, wondering if there’s anything worth finding there. I dream of stories and technologies that could let us peek just that much closer to another world like ours…or one completely different. So, I guess I’m a little thankful for horrific scarring space earwigs. They definitely dug into me and planted ideas.

I’m sending my family’s names up on the Lightsail solar sail satellite launching next year, including all my nieces and nephews. May the space bugs bite them lightly, and infect them with the joy of untold discovery.

”I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Neil Armstrong on looking back at the Earth from the Moon in July 1969.