Essay: Why I am a Space Case

Note: I originally submitted this essay to a website for aerospace engineers that was soliciting this sort of topic so that they could be posted to inspire other to follow us into the field. As far as I know, the essay was never publish.

From a young age, I knew I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. Or as I said back then (and to this day) I wanted to be a rocket scientist. It was important to say rocket scientist, because I would jokingly tell people that I wanted to be that or a brain surgeon, just so I could have a witty retort. I even have a t-shirt that says much the same. So is the reason why I have remained in college, both has a undergraduate and graduate student, for nearly nine years, with the ultimate goal to get a PhD, is that I can be a comedian about my line of work? Hardly. Underneath that jokey façade lies the real reason why I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I wanted to be a part of something that pushed the boundaries of mankind.

Looking up at the night sky, what do you see? I don’t mean what constellations can you pick out or if you can tell the difference between the North Star and Venus, but rather what do you think about when you gaze upwards? For me, the night sky, space, represents the same thing the Atlantic Ocean did to those explorers of old: a noble and doable, if not challenging, opportunity. Those explorers knew the risk and knew the price, both physically and monetarily, but decided that not only was it worth the risk to explore the unknown, but that man could conquer the seas. But unlike Magellan’s feat, space cannot be circumvented and that is what made it so appealing to my younger self and still enraptures me today. Space is the closest man will get to having something with endless possibilities and opportunities. The universe will always have one more star to explore, one more comet to chase, one more nebulae to investigate.

Certainly, my voracious consumption of all things science-fiction related helped shape my outlook. From Star Trek to Firefly, from H.G. Wells to Robert A. Heinlein, my life has been filled with people who boldly go where no one has gone before, embodying the noble aspect of space exploration, and who treat space as frontier to be settled, embodying the can-do spirit of exploration. Putting aside that space-related science-fiction often includes extraterrestrials, the interesting parts to me were always the bits that were extrapolations on what we had now: the vessels the used to explore the universe and the cities that mankind have set up on distant planets. The technology behind it wasn’t the only thing that fascinated me. Tales of terraforming and wormhole jumping captured my attention as well. To me, all of that seemed possible, maybe not in my lifetime, but it could at least get started now. If only there was a way to bridge the gap between science-fiction and science-fact.

So this romanticized notion of doing something for the betterment of mankind, of pushing the boundaries of what man can do, formed in my head when I was a boy and hasn’t left since. I knew I had to be a part of the space industry in some form. My creative urges and my skill in math and sciences (and my awe of that wonderful technology in sci-fi stories) led me to aerospace engineering. People would ask me if I wanted to design planes and I would shake my head and say no. I was interested in the space part of aerospace. I told them I wanted to work for NASA and to see my work on a launch pad. In my graduate career, I have had the chance to work with NASA and to say it is a dream come true would be an understatement. We may not be launching astronauts to colonize Pluto, but space is definitely on our minds. I hope for the future it will not only remain on our minds, but be evident in the works our hands create and in the spirit that we all share.

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