Future Reflections Winter 2013
by Chelsea Cook
Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, Vol. 56, No. 1, January 2013
From the Editor: Chelsea Cook is a student at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Since childhood she has been fascinated by space travel. In this article she explains how she came to be "bitten by the space bug" and what she is doing to make space travel a possibility for herself and for other blind people.
Jimmy was about to go on another adventure. Without his parents' permission. In a homemade rocket. To a galaxy no human had ever visited before. And I was going with him.
To my ten-year-old mind, there was nothing more thrilling than watching Jimmy Neutron. Even without audio description, I could follow the story. I was infatuated with the idea that a fictional boy genius my own age could accomplish all these amazing feats. He didn't always fit in, so I could relate to him. His sheer boldness and confidence inspired me and showed me that, with hard work, I could do just as well in math and science. Most important of all, Jimmy showed me that I could go to the stars.
Certainly most kids have the fantasy of becoming astronauts. But that dream never died for me. At the same time Jimmy was rocketing around town and galaxy, I picked up a book by Noreen Grice called Touch the Stars II. It is one in a series of Braille books about astronomy that Grice has created, complete with carefully designed tactile graphics. In the introduction to the book, I 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 a reality for me, as it had for other blind people. I thought, "If Kent Cullers could do that, so can I." Now I had to work to join those ranks.
Once I was bitten by the space bug, it didn'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 by seventh and eighth. I couldn't get enough of the sciences surrounding astronomy. When the Braille eighth-grade physics and chemistry book was ordered accidentally instead of the seventh-grade biology text, I let no one know that I sneaked three volumes home every weekend. Under the covers I devoured the inner workings of laser technology and neutron stars. I got my hands on every book that Noreen Grice produced.
When I entered high school, I used to joke that my idea of 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 my sighted peers had 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 from any other student. With every demonstration we did, I got my hands dirty--pushing bowling balls up for pendulums, having graphs drawn into my palm, 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 I 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 hoped for. The NFB national convention was in Dallas that year, and my mom had dismissed the idea of going to Houston early on. 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 campus of the Johnson Space Center. Another surprise was 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. I was in 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 or 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 Apollo flight director 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 included 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.
The connections and influences that made a difference when I was ten are still with me. I have all five of Noreen Grice's books 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 Jimmy Neutron's soundtrack when I'm solving especially difficult calculus or physics problems. Something about that carefree time when I first realized that anything is possible helps the answer come to me. 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.