Wednesday, March 14, 2012

young astronauts?

space. i've kinda always wanted to go.

unlike the generation before, i didn't have a Cold War, Space Race, and/or Moonshot to inspire me. there was (science) fiction, which i suppose resulted from these more significant events. regardless, the effect of space on who i've become has been substantial. though i'm still coming to terms with what it means for me (if anything) as a grown-up.

here's a random story of that journey, with some sort of point/realization at the end, i promise.

a long time ago...
my parents took me to see Star Wars at the local drive-in. i was a baby, so while i really have no recollection of this, it's worth mentioning. the following years (ages 2-6) i did venture to a galaxy far, far away countless times - albeit on VHS. X-wing fighters, the princess in space, death stars (2), droids, wookies and lightsabers set my imagination alight. i DO remember seeing Return of the Jedi at our local dollar theatre, while Empire would not tint my outlook that "the world is a series of down-notes" until much, much later. but the damage had been done. space WAS the place. the force would be with me, always.

my mom was actually a science teacher, and her best friend worked in the science/computer lab. by the time i was in 2nd grade (age 7), i was playing during/after school with toy rockets - not the spaceships that powered my imaginary adventures, but  the kind that actually shoot towards the sky via chemical propulsion. at school, i remember the big day we gathered to watch a teacher blast off into space, only to leave in tears after the Challenger exploded into so many pieces. regardless, i stayed immersed in fancies of flight - whether it be of the real, paper, and/or foam variety (i also happened to obsess over legos, comics, and ninja turtles...but those are entirely separate posts). i joined the "Young Astronauts" club, eventually went to Space Camp, and i quickly knew my way around the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum via frequent summer DC trips (one of which involved my visiting grandparents getting an in-depth tour). the real reason the Fantastic Four was 100-times cooler than Batman or Spider-Man? they spent pretty much all their time in space or other dimensions, and they got their powers from cosmic rays. clearly the only way for me to get super powers (a priority at the time) was to get to space - i wasn't getting anywhere near radioactive spiders or gamma bombs. by the time Star Trek: the Next Generation debuted (age 8), space had me, hook line, and sinker.

yea i know, i was becoming quite the weirdo. don't get me started on my blue-green glasses.

it took me a bit too long to realize what a dork i was (age 9). my childhood best friend actually had to confront me with this fact, which sparked far too many years of "how do i fit in?" self-obsession. it wasn't until i quit "trying" (embracing my inner nerd) that i achieved moderate success here. but throughout this adolescent/teenage ordeal, my imaginations and thoughts of space provided an easy-enough escape. out there things were bigger, more important concerns than how well you dressed or played sports (both of which i was particularly lacking).

the real reason i speak German fluently proficiently? i often tell people that my teacher's daughter was cute, but i didn't meet her until high school (though our assistant teacher the year before was easy on the eyes). given this post, you can probably surmise that the German-thing started much, much earlier, prior to any cute "academic influences." in fifth grade (age 10), we had the opportunity to start taking a language. Spanish seemed to easy (my love of Mexican food was not a big enough influence at the time). all the super-nerds were taking Latin (eventually helpful for their SATs?). i really have no idea why anyone would take French (girls were also not as much a concern at this age, nor was the prospect of working at a French yogurt company). but you know where all of the American rocket technology came from? ZE GERMANS. Werner Von Braun, to be specific (never mind the fact that he was first a nazi scientist who reigned fire on the England from above).

so clearly, in my space-addled mind, speaking the language of the original rocketeers (technically, that might have been the Chinese, since they discovered/invented gunpowder) was the most sure-fire way to get a job at NASA later on in life. with a few other friends (whose motivations for the language escapes me), we stuck with it well into and through our teenage years. along the way, i through myself into visual art (i blame comic books), and finished high school at a "math & science" school, where among my fellow nerds, your placement in physics and calculus gave you some status. i got a little better at sports and dressing along the way (relative to my math-and-science classmates), but not by much.

becoming a "grown up"
soon enough, high school came to a close, and it was now time to go to college. i certainly wasn't going to fulfill parentally-mandated stereotypes and become a doctor. and said-parents were certainly not going to let their son study art (my other teenage obsession, competing with emo music and cute girls). so (computer) engineering would become the great compromise. as computers were becoming the next "hot thing" in 90s, and i knew a thing or two more than my elders, they reluctantly went along with such pursuits. but even then, in the back of my (german-speaking, awkward teen) mind, did any of this have to do with space anymore? while i did spend a lot of late nights working on physics/calculus problems watching TNG reruns, the fast-encroaching real world was slowly eroding my passion for space. besides, college was also where my interest in (live) rock music, travel, and yes, girls caught on more.

during a couple of summers i interned with a giant defense contractor, living in Huntsville, AL, the birthplace of the US space program (WVB FTW). every day i drove by a giant space shuttle and Saturn V rocket, which never got old. one of my first big projects - working on NASA web-training modules, while easy enough, was mind-numbing enough to scare me away from government work, much less a career as a computer engineer. the remote realities of space started to lose even more of it's luster (really George Lucas? Episode 1...Jar Jar?!?). returning to school, convinced that i wouldn't become an engineer, i toyed with other creative pursuits, started listening to more bands, meeting new girls, finished my engineering/german degrees, and eventually ran away to Europe for a short bit. space was the furthest thing from my mind. i eventually wound up lost in business school, stumbled into a career of (digital) marketing, and never really looked back. one positive thing for me leaving everything behind, and getting out of the south. i was traveling at warp speed into the personal unknown.

as of late.
i still don't know how or why i work in marketing. selling stuff isn't my forté. i just landed here. but i seem to do it well, and they pay me lots of money - which allows me to travel. there's something about the intersection of people (we call them condescending is that?) and technology...that's the good stuff that excites me to come to work every day (other stuff has me hitting the snooze button, but again, that's antoher post). marketing/media tends to be at the front edge of these changing habits and practices...probably because we're trying to find new ways to break through the clutter, and make a buck. don't get me started on "media fragmentation." and the creative wizardy we love Don Draper for? it's even more relevant now than it ever was before, assuming the intentions are noble and not evil.

along the way, there have been many an occasional (sometimes obsessive) flirtation with Hubble, Mars, Asimov, Zahn, Branson, and yes, Battlestar Galactica (don't judge me). it doesn't really compare to the love of space from my youth, but the fire has always been kindled. after all, i'm a nerd at heart. though lately, there's been a bit of a re-awakening, from what seems like a far-too-long hibernation.

i recently started reading Neil deGrasse Tyson's Space Chroniclesfor those of you that don't know Neil, he's the astrophysicist with the Hayden Planetarium at the NY Museum of Natural History, and is constantly on TV talking to the likes of Stewart, Maher, and others about why space matters. Neil's main literary premise (which this post parallels and supports), is that mere idea of space exploration is something that, since the 60's, has ignited the hearts and minds of people to pursue science, math, and yes, technology. how else are we going to get all the way up there?

but recent decades has seen the commoditization of space travel. no longer are we trying to go beyond our current reach (soulless satellites and probes do not count). the moon was supposed to be our first of many stops. instead, we chose to languish in low earth orbit. so our communal desire to explore "out there"was blunted.

sure, there were always few(er) inspired geeks/nerds like me, but we grew up, and found other, less meaningful pursuits. and yes, i won't argue against the fact that as a society, technology is still exploding, exponentially - but we've turned inward - focusing on digital and social technologies, which have been amazing at creating connections and access that never existed before, but are quickly devolving into a feedback-loop of self-fulfilling likes, check-ins, and status updates - on the web, on our phones, tablets and soon television (don't get me started on the inherent evils and ever-dumbing down that comes from that particular box that sucks the best of us in). so many of these eventually world-changing technologies were born out of space exploration - the need to do the impossible. we'll continue to innovate, but one of the key catalysts is quickly languishing. i can only reference my personal slumber as a relevant example.

in closing.
i like to think that
...i just don't know how to get there anymore.
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