in recent years

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201220112010

to the stars

I love space.

I have always known that I would never go to space.

I was an uncoordinated, fat kid who didn’t trust the military (Of course there are civilian astronauts. Lots of them! Neil Armstrong even, technically!) and I knew I would never have the discipline for it.

But I have always wanted to be part of the space program.

More than any other dream I’ve ever had — publishing a book! writing a movie! — I wanted to help explore space. It was my second dream job — edged out by paleontologist because, dinosaurs are amazing obviously — and the first I knew, almost as soon as I dreamed it, that I could never do.

Space is incredible. Vast and beautiful and endless. Every single thing we learn about space teaches us something important, but also opens us up to even more knowledge, to an even more expansive universe than we previously imagined, to an infinity so broad it’ll break you if you think about it too hard.

And I wanted to be part of it more than almost anything I have ever wanted.

And I knew I never, ever could.

Math and I have always been enemies. My lowest grades were always math. I had to repeat high school algebra. I preemptively took the ACT, well before I took the SAT, because I’d heard that the math was easier and I was T-E-R-R-I-F-I-E-D that my SAT score wouldn’t hit the minimum to avoid college placement tests. (It didn’t.) I didn’t want to struggle through at least 3 quarters of remedial math before also struggling through college algebra. (My ACT did.) I had to take a no-credit in my college algebra class because I couldn’t hack it. I ended up taking a logic class to satisfy my one single math requirement. I don’t think my final grade was very good. I excelled in sciences until they required math — here’s looking at you, high school chemistry — and I knew, deep down in the dark cave-like places where disappointment lives, that it would never get better. I would never make it through anything harder.

I took physics in college anyway, probably through a fluke of class requirements, availability, and timing, and it was torture. I understood the concepts, the ideas, the big stuff, the theoretical. I understood it and I liked it. I cared about it. Physics is… as close as humans get to magic. But the math bewildered and confused me. I tried. I read. I studied. I have never been a good studier, but GOD, did I try. I tried. And I just… couldn’t.

After putting in my second lackluster test performance, my very smart, very kind professor — a woman who worked for NASA and JPL and took students to the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Kennedy Space Center every year — asked me to stay behind after class.

I think I’d gotten a D and I was unhappily resigned. I wouldn’t call myself an overachiever, but with the exception of math, school had always been easy for me. Not just easy, but natural. It has always felt like learning was what I was supposed to be doing, the only thing I’ve ever been particularly good at.

This woman looked at me with this awful kindness, the kind that strips you down when you’re not expecting it, and she said, “You just. You can’t do this math, can you?”

And my breath caught in my throat because I’d had teachers who sympathized with my struggles before, ones who tried their best to help, but no one had ever, ever looked at me like they actually got it — that I was trying my absolute fucking hardest and I just could not do it.

And I just nodded.

She smiled at me, soft, and she told me she would do everything she could to give me partial credit so I could pass. And she did. And I did.

I took an astronomy class with her later, a class I anticipated and dreaded in almost equal measure, because I still loved space and because I wanted to learn about it, and she smiled and nodded at me when I took my seat at the front and some of the dread faded because I knew she still got it and I knew she had my back.

I cried after that class a lot. Because I love space. And learning so much about it — it was a surprisingly in-depth class for even an upper division entry-level — was moving, but also devastating because I knew this would be the end of organized space education for me. There was nowhere else for me to go.

She told me once, about midway through, as we went over a test after class that she had never had a student who so clearly and easily grasped and engaged with conceptual information, but who couldn’t do the math. It was the kindest, most flattering knife I’ve ever had through my heart.

I’ve always told people that, if the opportunity arose, even if I knew it was a one-way ticket to certain death, I would go into space. This is true every single day. This has never, even for like, one minute in my entire life been not true. To reach into the rich dark and see the limitless sea of our existence, to leave the bounds of earth, I would give my life. In a heartbeat. In a nanosecond. In a Planck second.

I won’t set foot on an airplane, but any space vessel will do.

The privatization of space exploration pains me. The increasing incuriosity of the American public and their unwillingness to fund NASA and further exploration of our universe is nauseating to me. We are so small in the scheme of everything and we have so much to learn. We are a species built from survival instincts and yet our curiosity compels us to do so much more, to learn so much, to seek out the edges of our universe and understand them.

Math may have defeated my dreams of exploiting that curiosity to its fullest. It may have even crushed my dreams, but it can’t stop me from learning. There is always more to know. And if Opportunity could outlive her mission by 14 years to teach us as much about Mars as she possibly could, we can be curious enough to learn something from her and curious enough to care about what comes next.

The static from your television is 1% residual radiation from the Big Bang. You and I and everyone we love, we are made of star stuff. We are the universe, walking and talking and seeking. Stay curious. Don’t stop learning.