I’ve been a stargazer since I was a kid. We all look up at the stars at night, but it’s how we feel about them that makes us different. For me, the stars are what made my dreams happen.
Inside, I am still the kid on the front lawn of my parent’s house on a summer’s night, looking up with a smuggled (he would have said ‘no’) pair of my older sibling’s broken binoculars. The small, fuzzy points of light suspended in an inky black were mesmerizing, made into barely larger fuzzy points with binoculars. Armed by a few library books to guide me, any prediction that one day I would join the sky would have seemed to me as remote as the stars themselves. Still, these lights made me wonder and whisper: “Wow. How can I get closer to what’s up there?”
Now fifty years later, I am still looking up. While I am better at identifying the stars, I still find the ‘wow’ in them. Today, they are also more personal and are more meaningful. For instance, at the center of this photo, this small (and fuzzy) point of light is the International Space Station (ISS) clipping along at 17,500mph overhead (approx. 250 miles up) above my house this past February. The reason this particular point of light is meaningful is because onboard the station, at that moment, was an experiment that I helped design. I am the founder and project lead of an experiment, called GravityGames™. At the time I snapped the shot, the first GravityGame had recently been made on the ISS and played by the crew.
I am a relative latecomer to the sky and space, learning to fly in 2003 after facing my fears and risks and daring to follow my dreams. Flying became my Second Act. My fate was sealed on my first flight, and my life has not returned to the ground since then. After my fifth pilot’s license my imagination began to soar higher–I began to think about the stars.
One day over two years ago, I was at a conference entitled: ‘New Space.’ The conference explored the opportunities and challenges of opening the space frontier to human settlement on the moon and Mars that we will see this in our lifetime. I started to think about generations to come and how to connect today’s young minds to the big changes happening in space today. That’s when the idea of GravityGames flashed into mind: I would devise a program for them to do more than just look at the stars like I did, but really engage them in what was happening at this moment in space. I would get them closer to what’s up there. And I thought of how we that might happen: by designing unique ‘games’ to inspire STEM students.
We started with a simple premise: astronauts have stressful jobs. How could students relieve some of that stress? Well, students could design a zero gravity handheld game, have the astronauts make it on the 3D printer (by Made in Space, Inc.) and have the game played by the astronauts. The outcome: the astronauts have something fun to do and the students solve a technical design and science-based challenge.
Together working with the pilot group of STEM students, and the company Made In Space that embarked on this adventure with us, we have opened new opportunities that I could never have imagined when I was a kid peering into the night sky with binoculars. As founder and principal investigator of the first GravityGame, the students and I shared all phases of developing a project for the ISS: understanding the life of an astronaut, designing a playable game in zero-gravity, and watching the launch of Orbital ATK Cygnus in March 2016 with their project on the manifest and on its way up to the ISS.
Then, on February 13th, 2017, the first GravityGame made its debut. We watched it being made on the ISS printer (closed circuit) and later demoed by the crew. And after a month in space, our experiment returned to Earth inside the SpaceX Dragon on March 19th. The astronaut de-briefing later this year will include their reactions to the students’ hypotheses.
When you think of your childhood dreams and they still make you say ‘wow’, remember I only started to realize mine at midlife. Dreams don’t go away; they just resurface in surprising, new ways. Re-imagine them. And then pass them forward to inspire the next generation of dreamers.