I was 16 and I wanted to go into space more than anything in this world, well, this entire universe. I figured if they could put a man on the Moon, they could put a woman on Mars. I hoped that woman would be me. But, just about everyone I knew thought I was totally insane. My family, classmates, the few friends I had, teachers. What ever gave me the idea that girls become astronauts? Especially strange girls who obsessed on being a pioneer in outer space. With a sense of the historical significance of the human exploration of space, I had visions of being on the first rockets that brought explorers who eventually became the hardy founders of a small, isolated community on Mars. The idea of 'landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade', a mandate that had already been made by John Kennedy when he was president, just blew me away. That would be one step, a rather big one, closer to Mars. Who else took this idea seriously? I had a teacher or two who took me seriousy, especially my biology teacher, Mr. Blake, who called me 'the only exobiologist I have known'. I discovered that Girl Scouts of America also did.
I was a Girl Scout and discovered that, as a senior scout, I was eligible to apply for National Events. That year, one of the National Events was a Space Exploration Conference to be held at the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama! (That event eventually became the basis for Space Camp, held yearly for students all over the US to this day.) At Marshall they were building the giant Saturn V boosters, under the direction of none other than Werner von Braun, who, along with Kennedy, was responsible for instigating our commitment to space exploration. I thought I couldn't possibly have a chance: after all, they were selecting only 50, one from each state. But, I went through the application (pages of essays) and interview process for Connecticut scouts. And, miraculously, they selected me! That was exciting and scary.
I prepared by reading everything I could find on rocketry. I was supposed to be planning some community outreach for when I returned, but, as I was extraordinarily shy, I found that a major challenge. Meanwhile, I was interviewed by the Hartford Courant, and congratulated by a Connecticut Congressman, Daddario, head of the Science and Technology Committee in Congress at that time. My head was spinning. Astoundingly, to me, my parents weren't sure they approved of my being so far away and out of their sight (and control) for two weeks. Maybe they thought I would bypass the usual process and attempt to become a stowaway on a real rocket. The whole family went to the airport to buy my ticket, and to put me on the plane. Somehow, my parents didn't understand the need for getting there in enough time to get your luggage on the plane. I remember running to the gate with the agent, hand carrying all my luggage. Back then, airports were clean, not overcrowded. Check-in was done with friendly agents who would help you with anything and answer every question. Passengers were treated with real respect and were free to come and go as they pleased. Too bad I was spoiled by that. It's not like that now. I had to change planes in Newark. There I met two others like me! We were travelling in our Girl Scout uniforms, I think. Or, we just recognized each other based on our outlier nerdiness.
When we arrived in Huntsville, we were taken to Marshall Space Center to meet Werner von Braun, the Director, who had agreed to welcome us with a brief speech. But, he couldn't be there, due to an emergency, so he sent his deputy. We were a bit disappointed, but understood that von Braun was doing important work. So, all fifty of us wrote him letters, thanking him for letting us use the Center, and indicating we understood how busy he was. The next day, he came to see us, for an informal meeting, at our hotel. He took the time to speak to us personally. I'll never forget that. That is the kind of guy he was.
I did join the space program, after all! I have worked at more than one NASA center and done stints in academia. Through the years, I have heard other stories of Werner von Braun going out of his way to provide encouragement to young people. I came to understand that von Braun was primarily responsible for the NASA charter being written the way it was, making it an open agency where any developments were available as benefits directly to the American people, and where education and outreach were promoted at every level. I had experienced the commitment of Werner von Braun to this kind of an agency personally. The torch was passed when I shook his hand. I try to live the behaviors von Braun modeled for me. I work with and respect colleagues as egalitarian team members who bring the tremendous variety of essential skills and experiences necessary to accomplish successful missions. I share what I have learned with not only colleagues but with everyone I meet, particularly with young people who need some encouragement, not unlike myself.