The Soft Side of Endeavour: What Space Exploration Means to Me

Space shuttle Endeavour at California Science Center. Photo by Ariane Coffin.
Space Shuttle Endeavour at California Science Center. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

While my in-laws were visiting us last month, we took them and our two kids to see Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. When I walked into the hangar and saw Endeavour, I got a little teary-eyed. I am not usually an emotional person, and certainly not one to attach meaning to objects, but Endeavour may always be the exception to my rule.

I saw Endeavour and remembered our first visit to see the shuttle eleven months ago. It was the very day we found out I was pregnant with the baby I was now holding in my arms. We had been trying to get pregnant for a long time, so seeing the shuttle symbolized not only the end of an era for the shuttle itself, but also the end of an era in our lives: We were finally done with the hardships of infertility. Seeing Endeavour was the end of our own endeavor and the launch of our next adventure.

I suggested to my husband that we name our unborn daughter Endeavour after that meaningful day. He, who had been much less moved by the coincidence of a positive pregnancy test falling on the same day as our Endeavour visit, quickly shut it down. “But think about how cute the nickname Endie would be,” I argued. In retrospect, it was probably a wise move on his part. Nevertheless, she will always be my Endeavour baby to me.

There are three of us in both photos! Photo by Ariane Coffin.
There are three of us in both photos! Photo by Ariane Coffin.

It wasn’t the only reason I felt sentimental. There was also something incredibly surreal about seeing the shuttle. This one object, standing right there in front of me, had been in space. Space! It wasn’t a video of the shuttle, it wasn’t a photograph of the shuttle, it was the shuttle. And it had seen things we can only dream of.

The essence of its presence left the adults in an humbled silence, but it was completely lost on my preschooler and the other children her age. They were all glued to the one television screen playing scenes from an Endeavour launch. Tried as I might to explain that this shuttle right here was the one in the launch video, the video was evidently much cooler in their mind’s eye. I have to admit there was still something special about seeing a space shuttle launch, so I let them be. They will see—really see—the shuttle itself soon enough.

Finally, the last part of my sorry-I-have-something-in-my-eye moment was what the shuttle represents for my daughters’ future. Space exploration stands for discovery and knowledge. It stands for the feats of engineering and a defiance against the seemingly impossible. It stands for a dream that our children will know a world bigger than our own.

Our children may not yet fully grasp the significance of Endeavour. Surely no one else, small or tall, will ever have warm fuzzy feelings for Endeavour for all the same reasons I do. My own baby story notwithstanding, I have nothing but good things to say about our visits to Endeavour, let alone the California Science Center as a whole—perhaps with the exception of L.A. traffic. We may or may not colonize Mars one day, but early exposure to space exploration can only help inspire the next generation of movers and shakers.

Space Shuttle Countdown: A Tribute To Roberta Lynn Bondar And Julie Payette: Canada’s Female Astronauts

Image: Canadian Space Agency

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a mom or an astronaut when I grew-up. I think we can blame Star Trek for the astronaut bit.

As a small child, I would look up at the stars and dream about what it would be like to explore the vast regions of space and I would marvel at the science involved that allowed people to be hurled into space, attached to a rocket.

I was always very fortunate that every one in my life nurtured my love and aptitude for math and science. They may not have nurtured my geeky tendencies, but the nerd in me was always strongly encouraged. I was never told that I shouldn’t like math or science because I was a girl. However, when I first started to have my dreams of being strapped to a rocket, reaching escape velocity and leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, Canada did not have a space agency or a space program.

Roberta Lynn Bondar. Image source: Canadian Space Agency

Then in 1983, the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada put a help wanted ad in newspapers across the country. The NRC was looking for six Canadians to begin a wonderful journey; a journey where no Canadian had gone before—a journey into space. It wasn’t until March 1989 that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) would be created through an Act of Parliament, proclaimed in December 1990.

In 1983, over 4,300 Canadians applied, from all walks of life, in the hopes that they would be chosen as one of six people who would eventually leave Earth at speeds reaching 17,500 mph (7.8 km/s). In December 1983, one of those initial six chosen to be Canada’s first astronauts was Roberta Lynn Bondar. Her acceptance into this new Canadian endeavour helped to reinforce in my young mind that this was something I could aspire to be.

Image source: NASA

On, January 22, 1992, Roberta would be one of the crew on space shuttle Discovery STS-42, making her Canada’s first female astronaut in space. Roberta was Payload Specialist 1, for the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission (IML-1). The object of IML-1 was to study the effects of weightlessness and microgravity on living organisms and materials processing. As Payload Specialist, she performed experiments in the Spacelab and on the middeck.

A little bit of fun trivia: Roberta was used as a the ‘human coin toss’ for Super Bowl XXVI. She curled up into a ball, then was slowly spun and tossed towards the ceiling. Whatever end of her body touched the ceiling first would be ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. The result: ‘tails’.

In September 1992, Roberta left the Canadian Space Agency in order to pursue her research.

You can read more about Roberta and her contributions to science, research, the CSA and NASA here.

Julie Payette. Image Source: Canadian Space Agency

In 1992, another call went out looking for new people to become astronauts in the CSA. This time, only four would be selected. Over 5,330 people applied and Julie Payette would be one of the four selected, making her Canada’s second female astronaut, renewing my aspirations to boldly go into space. Her inclusion into the CSA was one of the reasons I would join the Canadian Armed Forces in 1993.

She has been lucky enough to be on two shuttle missions.

The first was on space shuttle Discovery STS-96, which launched on May 27, 1999. It was during this mission that a shuttle would dock for the first time to the International Space Station (ISS), making her both the first Canadian aboard the ISS and first Canadian to participate in the assembly of the ISS.

Image source: NASA

During that mission, she served as one of four Mission Specialists. It was her job to supervise the space walk, she operated the Canadarm and she was responsible for the station systems. Her duties did not end there. You can read more about her contributions to this mission here.

On July 15, 2009, Julie would return to the ISS on space shuttle Endeavour STS-127. During this mission, she served as the flight engineer—Mission Specialist 2. Her responsibilities included operating three different robotic arms–Canadarm, Canadarm 3 and the Japanese arm–as well as ensuring that the space shuttle was safe for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere by inspecting the shuttle’s wings, leading edges and nose cap.

From the beginning, this mission was plagued by problems. It wasn’t until the sixth launch attempt that Endeavour would be a go for launch. After Endeavour‘s launch, the world held its breath as news came that she lost some foam during the launch, the same event which caused the destruction of Columbia six years earlier. Thankfully, it was determined the the scuffs were minor and would not pose a threat upon reentry.

As with STS-96, her duties did not end there. You can read more about them here.

Image source: NASA

It was during this mission that another Canadian first happened: The first time that two Canadian astronauts would be both in space at the same and aboard the ISS at the same time. Also, after Endeavour docked with the ISS, it set a record for the most humans in space at the same time in the same vehicle.

Aside from the final Hubble repair mission, out of all the missions in the last two years, this mission is one that I remember the most vividly. Not only was it fraught with problems, but it was filled with a lot of very proud moments in both Canadian history and NASA history.

Also of note, Julie was was Lead CAPCOM (Spacecraft Communicator) for space shuttle Discovery STS-121 (2006): NASA’s return to space after the Columbia disaster.

You can read more about Julie’s contributions here.

Thank you Roberta and Julie for your contributions to both NASA and the CSA. Thank you for inspiring me as a young child, a teenager and continuing to inspire me into adulthood. I hope your legacy will continue to inspire many young Canadian girls to pursue careers in science, research, engineering and allow them to dream of a day when they will be strapped to a rocket and hurled into space.