(This took a couple extra weeks to write and post. Hey, it’s a busy time of year.)
When I was young I thought of growing old,
And what my life would mean to me…
Would I have travelled down my chosen road,
Or only wished what I could be…
This spring has been an interesting time of innovation and re-imagination, both locally and more broadly. Although I will not be taking a flight to Wakanda in the near future, I was obviously very intrigued by the Black Panther “origin story.” Living out one’s origin story is hard, in part, for one simple reason: no matter how seriously or strongly one feels one’s passion, the subject of the story has to live their lives forward in time. The movie scriptwriter and director can work backwards based on the story they want to tell (and the events they already know will be important for the story arc).
Figure 1: Flight to Wakanda sign, Atlanta airport (credit: CNN)
Unexpectedly, I have had the chance to consider my own origin story over the past few weeks—not just because of the opportunity to reconnect with history, but the ability to see in the present how pieces of the story fit together to tie present and past (and maybe, to tie past and present to future).
Bring to mind, if you will, a moment from your childhood where many things were possible, and you felt that a hero or heroine was speaking directly to you and your imagination of what you “want to be when you grow up”. I remember begging my parents to let me stay up late on Christmas Eve when I was six years old-not to wait for Santa Claus, or listen for reindeer, but to listen to astronauts speak for the first time from the orbit of the moon. The following Christmas, one shouldn’t be surprised that I had an Apollo Saturn V model (like this one, shown below) waiting for me on Christmas morning.
Figure 2: Saturn rocket model, 1969: photo from http://fantastic-plastic.com/REVELL%20SATURN%20V%20PAGE.htm
It’s critical to recognize that things rarely work out this clearly or directly; I meet people my age and older who still ask the question of what they want to be. (Sometimes, that’s about the awareness that life takes us on different paths; sometimes, it’s an admission that even as our bodies get older, we don’t always feel like we’ve “grown up”. Wasn’t “grown up” supposed to mean that things made sense, or were more clear, or had resolved all the youthful uncertainty? Apparently not.) But, nonetheless, imagine such a moment. And now imagine that a chance to see and hear that hero appears in your email inbox, in the form of an invitation: come see a panel discussion by the crew of Apollo 8 for a book launch about their mission to the Moon. The opportunity sells out, as would be expected… but not before I have my tickets. I’m off to Chicago, to hear about the Earthrise photo and the Christmas Eve message and, and, and…
This is the event that made me, and gave me the life I live today. This is primary inspiration.
I arrive at the Museum of Science and Industry in time to work through the line, and find a seat, before the lights go down.
Figure 3: Barrett at the MSI, with NASA SG Jacket
The movie director and screenwriter in my head can create a scene for the event, but that’s not really how it works out. I’m not called out, or accidentally run into Frank Borman in the hallway, or finding myself shaking Bill Anders’ hand. (As it turns out, I’d already seen and Jim Lovell before, so what does that say about leading a fairly special existence?) However, is this really something that I can mark as a failure or disappointment? I am learning more of what it was to them to be an inspiration to the world, as well as the inspiration and impact they felt to see all of human existence out their window in a single frame, knowing that they were the first to do so. They are telling the story so that the director and screenwriter are stunned into silence. The crew describes the surprises, and serendipity, and nearly sacred experience, as they experienced it and as they remembered it: living their lives forward, rather than worrying about the director’s intention.
Figure 4: Apollo 8 crew
And what about me? Well, I am wearing my NASA Space Grant jacket, with the iconic “meatball” logo. Not surprisingly, that gets some attention: a few people ask if I work for NASA; I’m much better now at saying “yes”. After taking a look (and some picture) at the Apollo 8 Command Module (and a framed and signed version of Earthrise), I am approached by a woman with a clipboard. Would I mind being videotaped for the Museum about the Apollo 8 event? Of course. I’m excited: perhaps too excited to answer the questions smoothly or calmly, I try to express the excitement of being able to be reminded of my origin story…
If the director in my head were managing this story, I would probably have finished here. But surprisingly, there is more. The very next day, there was an awards dinner for Engineering faculty, and I was awarded the Engagement and Service Award. I did not expect or anticipate video testimonials describing my effect and impact, through Indiana Space Grant and the senior capstone projects. I am unable to refute the messages or their meaning; I see no reason to reject the story anymore. And a week later, I am back at the Indiana FIRST Robotics State Championships, watching the excitement and tension of the competition in one of Indiana’s historic high school gymnasiums. This is new history being made, of course: the students are vying for the chance to represent Indiana at the World Championships in Detroit, where the NFL draft has taken a backseat in an NFL city to the prior commitment of K-12 students and their robots. A total of 15 teams earn their opportunities that day, including brand new teams and teams of underdogs who have overcome negative assumptions and lowered expectations to win awards of excellence. It feels like a small thing, for INSGC to offer financial support to help them on their journey. Who knows which of them will remember this month as part of their origin story, and the events that set them on the path for a life beyond their imagination, and successes not yet dreamed.
Figure 5: Detroit FIRST Championships, Einstein Round Robin. There is an origin story being written out here.