No, the title of this piece has nothing to do with punk rock groups. Quite by accident I stumbled across the Science Channel last night. There it was, a doomsday asteroid in high-definition hurling toward Earth, a catastrophe like no other. Far away in space, this menacing, pockmarked mass of nickel and iron, said the narrator, would end life as we know it someday, that is, if science could not find a way to deflect it.
Some of the best minds in science then discussed what might deflect it and what would fail miserably. All this science took me back to elementary school and Mrs. Freeman’s classes. In 1958, science, suddenly, was in fashion; accordingly, we had some memorable learning experiences.
I remember quite clearly how the curriculum turned on a dime in 1958. A rush to infuse science into our little minds took place. The dawn of television and the detonation of atomic bombs helped bring science to the forefront. In all truthfulness, however, the driving force behind the science push didn’t come so much from U.S. educators as it did the Soviet scientists who launched Sputnik in 1957. Sergei P. Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program, led the former Soviet Union into space. The USSR became the first nation to put a satellite into orbit and the first to send a man into space. In a way, Korolev gave me some of my greatest memories in elementary school.
The sprint to produce scientists and get this country behind its own space program led to science fairs for the next few years. Remember those? I sure do. Science fairs were held in the cafeteria and auditorium. Stationed along the cafeteria walls were experiments and cool things to do. At one place you could stand on a sort of large lazy Susan spinning contraption and learn how gyroscopes work. While standing on a platform set on ball bearings you held a bicycle wheel. Once it was set to spinning you could move to the right or left simply by leaning the whirling bike wheel in either direction.
At another station, you could breathe in helium. When you spoke, you sounded like Donald Duck, one of Alvin’s chipmunks, or munchkins in the Wizard of Oz, take your pick. Light and rising faster than air, helium travels faster through the vocal chords, thus creating the strange voices that brought so much laughter at our science fairs.
When everybody was settled in for the program, a “scientist” in a white coat would immerse a red rose into an insulated glass filled with liquid nitrogen. Minus 196 degrees centigrade, the liquid nitrogen instantly froze the rose, making it as brittle as porcelain. Then, with glee, the scientist smashed the rose like, well like a drunken Russian throwing his vodka glass against the fireplace celebrating Sputnik’s launch.
It was good theater and it got my attention. Becoming a scientist seemed the way to go. High on my list one Christmas was a chemistry set. My visions of building a bomb denied, I had to settle for mixing granules in a liquid, with the result being something that looked like red wine but smelled like paint. On another Christmas I got a telescope. On yet another I got a microscope and examined anything I could find.
I read science books, factual and fiction, among them HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds and Darwin’s Origin Of The Species. In high school I survived the torture of memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements under stern, tight-lipped Louise David. Why, I wondered, did we have to memorize a table. (Isn’t that why they designed the table in the first place? A handy reference?) And I survived a confrontation with my Darwin-hating pals on the steps of the high school when I wrote a paper on evolution … we all had a long ways to go back then.
For a long, long time I wanted to go into some field of science but Algebra and math derailed those dreams. I never lost my interest in science but you could say science, in a way, lost me. Still, I never let go of the hem, so to speak.
I followed the Mercury and Apollo space programs closely, and I made a good many trips to the Cape to see the launch pads, boosters, and modules, and in the early ’80s, I watched Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” with rapture. Known to none, I nurtured secret dreams of going into space. I was, in my mind, David Bowie’s “Major Tom.”
When NASA developed the Teacher in Space program, a similar effort, the Journalist in Space program was to be next. In a burst of youthful exuberance and an equal dose of naiveté, I applied for the chance to rocket into space. I received a certificate for my efforts, one that sits somewhere in a drawer or box. It mattered not. Not one journalist would escape the surly bonds of Earth. Both the teacher and journalist programs were discontinued after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Now and then, to be honest, more often than I like, I think of the schoolteacher who died aboard the Challenger, Christa McAuliffe. I see her waving as she prepares to board the shuttle … I see two smoke plumes, angry serpents in the sky, where the booster rockets flew away as the shuttle broke up. I see her poor parents, live on TV, looking bewildered … their darling daughter … gone forever.
I wonder if Christa, like me, first felt the stirrings, the dream to do something big, some day to soar into space, way back in elementary school. She was born one year before me and no doubt experienced her own science fairs. Perhaps she inhaled helium … spun lazily as a human gyroscope and watched with fascination as a rose shattered like glass.
She made the cut … someone had to.
I can’t speak for Christa, but without a doubt, my interest in science goes back to elementary school and Mrs. Freeman’s classes. Even now, many a night when the sky is clear and I see a point of light speeding across the heavens suddenly I’m standing in the front yard with my family staring at Sputnik. Ahead of me lie days of chemistry sets and telescopes and dreams of being a scientist. And it all seems like it was just yesterday.