Confession time: I am a space geek. Always have been. I remember as a kid reading about the first lunar landing in 1969 and being angry that it had happened before I was born. This was during a quiet period for the U.S. space program, between Apollo and the space shuttle. Without missions to follow, I read. I learned the history of NASA.
One year for Halloween, I had my mother make me a space suit. After Halloween, I slept in it. Every night. For years. When it wore out I insisted she make me a new one. To make it more realistic, I wrote a letter to NASA asking for mission patches. They sent me a packet of goodies, including a bunch of patches that I had my mother sew on the suit.
I watched the first shuttle mission in 1981 with fascination (and while wearing my space suit). When The Right Stuff came out, I had my parents take me. It remains my favorite all-time film. One hundred percent. Bleepin’-A, Bubba. Let’s light this candle.
So of course I was watching at 1:30 a.m. Monday when we landed a rover the size of an SUV on Mars. We can have a healthy debate as to whether this was $2.3 billion well spent, but there is no denying that this was incredibly cool stuff.
This is not your father’s NASA. Mission control is no longer a room in Houston filled with identical, buzz-cut, white-shirt-and-tie wearing white males. Instead, mission control is at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and is full of nerdy-looking scientists, engineers, and computer programmers. As the cameras caught this group wildly celebrating its success, the difference struck me. There were men and women. Different skin colors. Different ethnicities. Long hair. Long beards. Mohawks. Earrings. Maybe a few tattoos.
I thought about this group. I speculated if any of these supreme coders, engineers and scientists (and probably a few hackers in a different life) were on the autism spectrum. Certainly some were outcasts. Probably more than a few were picked on for being “different” while growing up. Most likely they all had a passion, a single-minded focus bordering on obsession. They all had managed to find their niche in life. Look what they achieved! I checked Twitter. My timeline is probably two-thirds people who write about or are involved in sports for a living. Most of them were tweeting about how blown away they were by what this group of scientist/geeks had just pulled off.
That’s a reversal, isn’t it? Jocks celebrating the achievements of a bunch of nerds.
My thoughts turned to Ryan, a possessor of many of the traits I speculated about in that control room. What will the future hold for him? Will he find his niche the way this group so clearly had?
I am always searching for ways to connect Ryan’s interests and strengths to real-world occupations. Though he plays hockey, his passion is more for following the sport, in particular its statistical minutia. He loves the standings, for reasons I have described before. Lately he has paid more attention to the statistics compiled in each game: shots on goal, save percentages, and the like. He asked me how they keep track of shots on goal at an NHL game. I told him there is a crew of statisticians that work for the NHL at every game. They sit in the press box with laptops, recording everything that happens.
“That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”
Such a typical expression of childhood. But it was the first time I had heard him say anything beyond being an NHL player. More importantly, the first potentially realistic job preference he had expressed. I told him that maybe he could grow up to be a member of one of those crews. I thought of how I might call in a favor or two to get him admitted to the scoring booth at a preseason game.
I thought of him finding a job where his obsessive love of the sport — to the point that I know some of his peers see as weird — would fit right in. Where it would be a strength. Where he would find his niche.
Sunday, I had an adult league hockey game at an unusually decent hour. I asked the kids if they wanted to come watch me play. They did. Veronica shuddered. We’ve done this a few times before: Riley barely pays attention, Ryan runs all over the rink screaming loudly. But Veronica is a trooper, so she agreed.
Ryan told me he was going to bring a notebook so he could track the shots on goal. And track he did. He spent the entire game standing at the glass where he had leaned his notebook, recording shots. He gave me an update after each period. “Dad, you guys haven’t had a shot on goal in a really long time.”
I couldn’t help but smile. It was perhaps the first time I envisioned Ryan in an actual career that he enjoyed. Maybe it’s a pipe dream. Maybe Ryan won’t care about hockey as an adult. (Although I now find that unlikely.) And there’s more to landing a job in a field you enjoy than just loving it.
But it’s a goal. Something to aim for and encourage.
Not so long ago, landing an SUV on Mars was a pipe dream, too.
- Will The New Mars Rover Save The U.S. Space Program? (forbes.com)
- The World Reacts to Curiosity’s Mars Landing (pcmag.com)
- New Horizons (On Mars) (brslifestyle.wordpress.com)
- NASA Mission Provides Peek of the Journey to Mars – ABC News (abcnews.go.com)
- NASA Rover Lands After “Seven Minutes of Terror” (voanews.com)
- Celebrating a Remarkable Mind (pucksandpuzzlepieces.com)