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Space Shuttle Discovery Thrills Audience at Udvar-Hazy #SpotTheShuttle

Joy, patriotic pride, and sadness over the end of an era swept over me as the space shuttle Discovery whooshed over our heads while the kids and I stood with what felt like half of Northern Virginia at National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Tuesday morning. I wasn’t born until after the first astronaut landed on the moon, but I vividly remember (and was even invited to attend) the first shuttle launch. The 1986 Challenger explosion is a defining moment for my generation, and every launch that followed felt like an American triumph over tragedy, especially after the Columbia tragedy in 2003. We no longer naively believed that the shuttle was invincible after Challenger, and Columbia reinforced that. Space is still a wild frontier, with so much left to be tamed. Though there has been the International Space Station, the Hubble telescope, and the Mars Rover — to me, the shuttle program has been the iconic symbol of NASA. It is what I grew up with, studied, rooted for, cried over, cheered for when it rose again, and then struggled with the realization that we weren’t going to see another one launch. I can’t imagine not watching another one launching.

I pulled my kids out of school to watch today’s flight, and made a last minute decision to rush over to Udvar-Hazy rather than just watch from our front yard. The kids were reluctant to miss school, but once they felt — actually FELT — the air rush over them and saw the underbelly of the jumbo jet that gave it a piggyback ride to Virginia, they understood why I was so insistent. Miraculously I managed to pick the right spot to be directly under it for the first pass of the morning, directly under it, feeling so close that we almost felt like we could reach up and grab on for a ride. In fact, it flustered me so much, I pushed the wrong button on my new camera! I got off a couple of shots, but not the ones I should have!

 Space Shuttle Discovery Udvar-Hazy fly-by

Thankfully, we had two more chances for an up-close view.

 

Space Shuttle Discovery side view

Between flights, I had an opportunity to take some shots of the people who were trying to spot the shuttle.

 

There were people of all generations in the parking lot, including a grandfatherly gentleman who was also skipping school (“I told my geology professor I was skipping class so I could come here!”) He was clearly as giddy to be there as some of the kids. In fact, I almost think that the excitement factor racheted up in direct correlation with age. Though there were some grumblings along the political front about the future of the space program (one comment I heard, “JFK must be spinning in his grave!”), overall the crowd was united in how thrilled they were in being able to be this close to the action. It was the most well-run event and politely behaved crowd I have ever seen.

I’m not sure my kids fully grasp the meaning of this historic day, but one day they will, and they will thank me for understanding that sometimes, you can learn more out of the classroom than in it. In the meantime, they got to see the beauty of Discovery in the air, not once, but THREE times, hone their powers of observation, (When did the air traffic stop? When did the pacer plane come by? When did the helicopters sweep through, where did they hover? What clues told us when Discovery was coming back by and which path it would take next?) and feel the difference between watching an incredible moment and actually being a part of it.

Incidentally, one of the channels recently ran a series of programs that was co-created by Discovery Channel and NASA called When We Left the Earth: The NASA Missions. I found it so fascinating that I am going to purchase the DVDs and found you can buy them online at Amazon or at Discovery. I think these will help my kids help put today into perspective, and you may find them helpful for yours!

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Associate and have included a link to a product to Amazon.  If you buy a product on Amazon directly after clicking on that link, I may receive a small percentage of the sale. I do not track nor have a way of tracking who purchased what.

Goodbye Susan — For Now

The long strand of white Chinese freshwater pearls I wore to her memorial mass/celebration of life are still on the dresser in the front hallway where I tossed them the second I came home. The purple carnations I bought a week before her death because of their bright hue and their lunar name, “Howl at the Moon,” stand at attention in the crystal vase on the console table, cruelly taunting me with their chirpiness. The deep purple manicure I got three weeks ago along with the other TheDCMoms.com bloggers in her honor and in an attempt to brighten her days in bed, finally needed attention. I cried softly as the manicurist took it off, just as I did when she put it on. Three weeks ago, with every stroke of the lacquer on my nails, I knew this would probably be the first, last, and only time I would wear purple nail polish. I knew in my heart time was running out.

Susan is gone.

 

She fought a valiant fight against what I consider to be a particularly vicious form of cancer — inflammatory breast cancer (“the one without a lump”). So hard, so long, and so well that almost to the end many of us thought she was going to rebound and make it for a while longer. Or as she told me two weeks before the end, that she was just “regrouping.” But there comes a point when you know it is time to say goodbye.  I am eternally grateful to both Susan and her family for allowing me the time to do so while she was alive.

I must pause to say that I’ve been reminded that Susan did not “lose her battle with cancer.” Susan lived longer than expected, and she lived the heck out of every single day. She kicked cancer up and down and back again. It may have ultimately claimed her life, but cancer won nothing.

beautiful moon

This is the gorgeous moon that rose over the Metro DC area on the evening of Susan's passing, as captured by our mutual friend Robin (@noteverstill). Her blog is The Not-Ever-Still Life: http://noteverstill.blogspot.com/

Susan is gone. But she is not. She is here. I run into her almost everywhere I go. The evening of the day she passed, her many, many friends were amazed by the glorious moon that rose early and put on a brilliant show. Only to be followed by a gorgeous Snow Moon the night of the visitation. So many of us felt like it was a sign, like she was just smiling her very radiant smile from heaven via the moon, saying, “See, I told you, it’s going to be okay.”

I’ve written more than once about how much Susan inspired me (and continues to do so).  There are so many people who have written so beautifully about Susan that I am not even going to try to sum up her life any better than they have. (See JeanAmyRobin… )

I have written and deleted this post several times. Should it be a tribute? A summary of a friendship? An accounting of events? Finally, I’ve decided to simply share a story.

When the Junior League of Northern Virginia was holding a fundraiser to raise money for The Children’s Science Center and put out the call for a Celebrity Scientist, I turned to Susan. Would she be willing to share her story of how museums helped shape her career? Susan, being so Susan, answered that she would be delighted.

Sadly, it turned out to be a day when she was in pain.  The cancer had returned, she just didn’t know it yet. I had begged her not to come if she was in pain, telling her we’d make do, but she came anyway. Because that was Susan. She’d fight through pain to do a favor for a friend and to do something she thought was important.

March 6, 2010 Dr. Susan Niebur presenting at the Junior League of Northern Virginia's STEM Awareness Day

Dr. Susan Niebur speaking as a "Celebrity Scientist" at the Junior League of Northern Virginia's STEM Awareness Day, an event to raise awareness about the need and raise funds for a Children's Science Center in Northern Virginia. Susan's touching story about how a visit to a museum at the age of three touched the hearts of many people in the audience. (March 6, 2010, photo is my own.)

Without anyone else knowing the pain she was in, she stood behind that podium and shared a story that people still talk about today. Her parents had taken her to a museum in Galveston, TX when she was three years old. After looking at all the astronaut suits, she looked up at her mother and asked, “Mommy, why aren’t there any GIRL astronauts?” To which her mother replied, “I’m not sure.” At the end of the exhibit, you could write a question on a card and drop it into a box, and Susan decided to ask NASA why girls weren’t astronauts, too. And at the tender age of three, she decided that she was going to grow up and work for NASA. And she did.

It was this story I shared with her mother at the visitation, and her mother says she vividly remembered that day. I wanted to share it with her, mother to mother, to let her know just how much that moment in time meant to Susan. Sometimes, as mothers, we forget just how precious those trips to a museum, a library or a zoo can mean. They can literally change a child’s life. Somehow I just wanted to give her mother a piece of her daughter back with that story. A memory of Susan as a little girl. Her father told us, “We taught her how to read at three and then she didn’t need us again!” Oh how, that sounds like Susan. And frankly, like my JavaGirl.

I credit Susan’s story with the success of the fundraiser that night. But I also credit it with planting a seed in my mind that though my son is the one who exhibits the most interest in science, that I need to be sure that I take equal time to foster it in my daughter. It’s not that I didn’t know this was important, it’s just that in the hubbub of parenting, it is so easy to lose sight of things. JavaBoy already wants to be a chemist. JavaGirl currently wants to be a horseback rescue rider. JavaBoy sees everything through science-filtered eyes, whereas I have to work at it just a little more with JavaGirl. She enjoys science, it’s just I have to remember to include her because she doesn’t have a single-minded focus like her brother.

Mere days after Susan’s funeral, we were at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles, where I was proud to see the Museum Without Walls partnership between the Junior League and the Children’s Science Center in action on a Super Science Saturday — kids were trying out mobile exhibits with a glee that I know would’ve brought out Susan’s brilliant smile. The Children’s Science Center is still raising money toward a goal of a future permanent building, but now has traveling exhibits it takes to schools and fairs. From there we walked over to the space exhibit, and I took JavaGirl by the hand to show her an astronaut suit in a glass case and explain to her “Miss Susan’s” story.

JavaGirl contemplates an astronaut suit

JavaGirl at the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center just a couple of years older than Susan was when she made that life-changing trip to a museum in Texas. (Photo is my own.)

“You see, when Miss Susan and I were little girls, there weren’t any women astronauts. But now there are. Miss Susan thought it was very important to have more women in science, so not only did she study very hard to be a scientist who worked at NASA, but she worked to make it better for other women to work in science, too. I want you to know that you can be anything you want to be, honey. And that includes being a scientist.”

We walked by an exhibit about exploration on Mars and I said that I knew that Susan was involved with that but that I didn’t know all the details — the kids were pounding me with questions. I was already regretting not having had enough time to ask Susan all the questions I would’ve liked to. When I spoke with Susan about science, it was usually more on the kid level, rather than delving into her career. It had always been my intention to get her together with my kids for a career discussion — she had met them once, but all our kids played while the adults talked — but the timing never worked out. I’m hoping some of Susan’s Women in Planetary Science friends will help me fill in some of the gaps.

At the end of a long day, after she was in her pajamas, JavaGirl came into my room and said, “Mommy, before I go to bed, I would like you to talk to me some more about Miss Susan and science.” I fought back my tears — mixed sadness over losing Susan and joy over a little girl’s interest — and we talked some more.

The next day, while working with JavaBoy on his science fair project for school, I turned to JavaGirl (kindergarten) and said, “Would you like to do a science fair project, too?” She practically leapt out of her chair with excitement. “Yes! I’m going to be like Miss Susan, except I’m going to be the first girl to do experiments!” (Okay, we still have some history work to do.)

We’ve spent the past several days working on the kids’ science fair projects, and I could swear I’ve heard Susan laughing from heaven a few times, like when I called the chemistry department at George Mason to ask a grad student to explain some unexpected results to JavaBoy, or when JavaGirl came up with zillions of questions of her own. I wore my IBC Research pin to the Discover Engineering Family Day both in the hopes it would open up a conversation with someone, and in a way, to “bring” Susan with me to a day I think she would’ve immensely enjoyed. Seeing so many kids enjoying STEM activities, such as building Lego structures and testing them out in a tsunami wave machine. No matter what the specific discipline, Susan encouraged intellectual curiosity in children (and people) of all ages. I just pictured her standing there, with that broad smile on her face, saying, “COOL!” And wouldn’t  you know it, the “prize” for completing your passport for visiting several booths was a chance to sit and talk to an astronaut.

Susan is gone. But she’s still here. Forever in my heart, my memory, and yes, I believe watching us from above. At times, giggling.

Susan, you are an inspiration always, in so many ways. There are many ways I could have been a better friend to you, but know that I could never have asked for a better friend than you. I miss you.

I have made a donation in her memory to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Please consider doing the same or making a difference to the charity of your choice. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are my own.

Encourage Their Inner Engineer

We cannot expose our children enough to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – so run, don’t walk, to Discover Engineering Family Day at the National Building Museum today for a an opportunity to discover just how fun engineering really is. Last year my family made pop-fly devices (think trebuchets), tried to balance tennis balls on newspaper cones and attempted other feats of engineering marvels.

Near and dear to my heart, of course, is the exhibit by The Children’s Science Center, “Engineering in Motion: Physics Playground” which was recently featured at Udvar Hazy.

Additionally, cast members from the show Design Squad will be there demonstrating dance moves and electrical engineering behind a supersized dance pad every hour, on the hour. They will have dozens of hands-on engineering activities, fun design challenges, and lots of giveaways.  Also, the National Society of Professional Engineers will be offering the Design Squad (DS) activity, Pop Fly, where kids will launch a ping-pong ball into the air using a foot-powered lever of their design. At the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ booth (IEEE), kids can explore which materials conduct electricity with DS’s Electric Highway, build circuits that can be easily concealed with DS’s Hidden Alarm, and try out and be inspired by some homemade dance pads, like those created in DS’s Dance Pad Mania activity.  I LOVE Design Squad for the way it inspires kids.

Discover Engineering Family Day at the National Building Museum: MyFoxDC.com

 This event is free from 10 am to 4:30 pm today, Saturday February 18 at the National Building Museum,  401 F Street, Washington DC.  http://www.eweekdcfamilyday.org/

Team WhyMommy Virtual Science Fair

There was a point in our lives when we were ALL scientists. We couldn’t help ourselves, we were born with a natural sense of curiosity and would investigate anything our minds and hearts desired. And then someone put the label SCIENCE on it and maybe some boring teacher droned on endlessly on it in a classroom or subjected us to a poorly written text book and that curiosity was drilled right out of us.

And then, if you are really lucky, you’ll meet someone in your life again like Dr. Susan Niebur (or like me, you’ll meet her as her alternate identity, “WhyMommy” and not realize for the longest time that her real-life identity is an ASTROPHYSICIST) and she may re-ignite your love of science.

I actually met Susan in an alternate world — seriously — in 2007. We “sat” near each other in a “conference room” at a BlogHer Conference  in Second Life, a online 3D world.  From that virtual world, we watched a live stream of the conference that was going on in real life in Chicago.  We typed a few words between each other and I think we even “danced” at a Second Life dance club and that was the last I thought I’d ever see of WhyMommy.  (That sounds far more tawdry than I mean for it to!)   I hadn’t even launched my blog yet and never thought I’d run into her again.  I looked at her site and it was then that I realized Susan was coping with a rare form of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer – a breast cancer that does not come with a telltale lump. 

Imagine my surpise a year later when I joined the DC Metro Moms Blog group and one of the first people I met at a real-life gathering was WhyMommy!  It took my mind mere seconds to connect the name with the person I had met in another world and I was so happy to see her looking so well — she had beaten the cancer!  Since then, I’ve seen Susan at a few other gatherings, and I was thrilled beyond belief when she agreed to come as a “Celebrity Scientist” to speak at a Junior League of Northern Virginia fundraiser to explain the important role museums, particularly those that allow kids to have hands-on experiences, play in children’s lives.  It was her moving speech about the impact of a museum visit at the tender age of 3 in shaping her ultimate career path to be a NASA astrophysicist that helped raise several thousand dollars for the Children’s Science Center.

And that’s what I love about Susan — her pure passion for science and her willingness to share it with anyone within earshot.  Unfortunately, that night she was also in pain.  A knot of pain in her back that was causing shockwaves of pain throughout her spine, which she found out only days later, was the sign of a re-occurrence of her cancer.  She fought through the pain to come to the fundraiser, and yet this pain quickly became the beginning of a new journey. 

Today Susan is having surgery to remove some nodes that are affected by the cancer — and I won’t even pretend that I can do a good job of explaining things, all I can say is that she has a scary journey ahead of her to fight the cancer once again.  And she’s the mother of two small kids.   And she has a ton of friends around her who wish they could take up the fight for her — but we can’t.  We feel helpless to do anything but keep saying encouraging words to her.

So there’s two things we’re doing today.  First — we’re going to encourage people to join the Avon Army of Women – a massive research project of ALL women — cancer-free, with cancer, cancer survivors.  Please go sign up, and then look for a study you can participate in sometime this year (new studies open up all the time).  Some are as simple as filling out a form.

Second, since Susan is NOT all about cancer, we are holding a virtual science fair!  Today, all over the blogosphere, Susan’s blogging friends are remembering how fun science can be — with our kids or even on our own.  As it happens, my son is having his Mad Science birthday party this week, so science is in the air in the Java household.  But today, in Susan’s honor, we played with magnets!

For the first experiment, we studied the laws of repulsion.  Take a toy car (it helps if it has wheels with a good bit of height) and strap a magnet on top with a rubber band.  Take another magnet and figure out which end has the opposite pole and because opposing poles repel rather than attract, you can make the car move forward simply by holding the magnet close to the back of the car.  (This is why you need a high wheelbase — so the rubberband doesn’t drag on the table).  JavaBoy thought this was “Coooool!”

The second experiment makes a great magic trick for an audience.  Drop a paper clip (make sure it is a metal, non-coated one!) into a glass of water, or if you are really coordinated, a water bottle.  Ask anyone if they know how to get it out without getting their hands wet or spilling any of the water. 

Then, whip out your handy magnet and run it along the side of your water container and you will be able to pull the paper clip right out of the water!  This is due to the laws of attraction — if you have a strong enough magnet, you can attract the paper clip to the magnet, even through glass and water.

You don’t have to be a NASA astrophysicist to appreciate science.  (You don’t even have to know one, although I recommend getting to know Susan, even if it is only through her blog!)  Go check out what some of Susan’s other friends are doing today and try some things out with your kids.  If you have a local science museum, plan a trip!  And if you don’t have one (like those of us in Northern Virginia – and that’s a post for another day), then find out what you can do to help bring one to the area!

Perhaps one day your little one will be the scientist who rids us of this awful disease called cancer. 

Susan — we’re all pulling  for you today!  I’m going a little heavier on the prayer than the caffeine!