Braille Monitor                                                 January 2013

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Bitten by the Space Bug

by Chelsea Cook

From the Editor: Chelsea Cook is a blind college student living in Virginia. She read testimony in Braille which was presented to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a number of his colleagues. She has long been fascinated by space travel and in this delightful article explains how she came to be bitten by the space bug and what she is doing to make space travel for her and other blind people possible.

Before getting to her article, let’s get to know some of the real and fictional characters she mentions. Noreen Grice is an author who has worked to make many objects viewable using only telescope images made touchable for blind people. Jimmy Neutron is a cartoon character featured on the Nickelodeon Television Network. He is a boy genius, but his intellect doesn’t make him popular. With this background, enjoy what Chelsea has to say:

Chelsea CookJimmy was about to go on another adventure. Without his parents' permission. In a homemade rocket. To a galaxy no human had ever visited. And I was coming with him.

To my ten-year-old mind, there was nothing more thrilling than watching Jimmy Neutron. Even without audio description I could still follow enough to be infatuated with the idea that a fictional boy genius the same age as I was could accomplish all these amazing feats. He didn't always fit in, so I could relate to him. His sheer boldness and confidence inspired and showed me that with hard work I could do just as well in math and science. But, most important, he showed me I could go to the stars.

Certainly most kids have the fantasy when they are young of becoming an astronaut. That dream never died for me. At the same time that Jimmy was rocketing around town and galaxy, I picked up Noreen Grice's Touch the Stars II, and read about Kent Cullers, the first blind radio astronomer. As the Braille graphics whisked me off to the constellations, planets, galaxies, and star clusters, it dawned on me that a career in some sort of astronomical field was no longer just a childhood dream. It could become reality--and had for other blind people. I thought, "If he could do that, so could I." Now I had to work to join those ranks.

Once I was bitten by the space bug, it wouldn't let go. I attended NASA workshops for youth, dragging my parents to Saturday morning lectures about Mars, impact craters, and the basic characteristics of flight. I took advanced math in fifth grade, catapulting me into algebra for seventh and eighth. I couldn't get enough of the sciences surrounding astronomy. When the Braille eighth-grade science physics and chemistry book was ordered instead of the seventh-grade biology one, I let no one know that I sneaked three volumes out every weekend, devouring under the covers the inner workings of laser technology and neutron stars. I found a way to get my hands on every book that Noreen Grice produced. When I entered high school, I used to joke that my idea of spending a perfect Friday night was to stay up late watching Discovery Channel documentaries about black holes and dark matter or to surf the NASA website when my parents had gone to bed and the pages loaded quickly. Most of my science education was self-driven. I had to fight to take Advanced Placement calculus and physics my senior year.

People thought I was an amazing blind person for wanting to go into a scientific field. How great it was that I wanted to learn these hard, abstract concepts that sighted peers would have no idea about. But it was much more than that: a drive and a thirst for knowledge propelled me. I am convinced that early Braille reading was the catalyst for all my other adventures. Jimmy Neutron and Noreen Grice came along at just the right time to spark my love of math and science.

For the longest time I thought I would combine astronomy and chemistry...until I took physics in tenth grade. My teacher expected nothing less from me than any other student, though he would give me a fair advantage. Every demonstration we did, I got my hands dirty: pushing bowling balls up for pendulums, having graphs drawn into my hand, playing with slinkies to simulate wave properties, being rolled around in a swivel chair to appreciate negative acceleration. I loved physics so much and felt its absence in junior year so greatly that I had to listen to calculus-based lectures on the Internet. I could generally follow what the professors were saying and would get in a few problems at the lunch table. Even though I hadn't had formal training in calculus, physics, which was connected to astronomy, was all I cared about.

Then came my Sweet Sixteen. Most girls want a party, or boys, or (for the sighted folks), a car. I really didn't know what I wanted, but what I got was beyond anything I could have expected. The NFB national convention was in Dallas that year, and my mom had dismissed the idea of going to Houston early on, so I was not expecting a recording from her on my birthday: "We have a problem. The tickets aren't for Dallas. You're going to Houston!" For two days I toured the Johnson Space Center campus, but another surprise was coming my way. I had a private tour, and one place we visited was Mission Control.

This was not a glassed-in view, nor one from a movie or photograph. This was the actual room used from 1965 to 1995 to control all of America's space missions. Astronauts of all eras, flight controllers of all competencies, and flight directors of all ranks had stood and sat where I currently occupied the universe for the better part of twenty minutes. “Awe-inspiring” was too weak a word to describe the flood of overpowering emotion that took hold while I stood in that large, all-encompassing chamber. I sank down in front of one of the work stations, the cushion accepting that a new occupant had come along. Still not believing my circumstances, I looked out over the darkened consoles to the giant black screen at the front of the room, imagining controllers filling every one of these seats. I thought of myself in Gene Kranz's position and wondered if I had a right to fill his enormous shoes. I had heard his voice many times over the years (Apollo 13 is my favorite mission), but I couldn't fathom the fact that I was actually sitting in his chair.

Now I am in college, pursuing my dreams for real. Freshman year totaled four astronomy courses and a space survey course. I am currently in an astrophysics sequence. I have Braille math and physics books, readers well versed in their fields, and professors who understand that I can learn the material; sometimes all it takes is a different way of presenting. But the connections and influences made when I was ten are still present. I have all five of Noreen Grice's books sitting on my shelf at Virginia Tech, and I have many megabytes on my computer devoted to the boy genius with the ice-cream hairdo (think dipped cone on top of large head). I still listen to his soundtrack when solving especially difficult calculus or physics problems; something about that carefree time when I first realized anything is possible helps the answer come. And I always dream of that day when I will no longer be bound by Earth's gravity; I will be in a place where the scope of the universe is as limitless as my imagination.

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