Part I: The Beginning
“To thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare
When people ask me how old I was when I figured out what I wanted to be, they usually aren’t prepared for my answer. I was six years old.
It all started when my family, residents of a suburb north of Houston, took a trip to the Johnson Space Center. My mom was into letting my sister and me dress ourselves even at the ages of 5 and 6. If I recall correctly, I was wearing a blue dress with white lacy socks and patent leather black shoes, while my sister was wearing a baby pink poodle skirt outfit that my cousin had sent her and white Keds.
- At that point I hadn’t really heard of anything about NASA or space travel outside of catching a couple scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation while my dad was watching it on television.
- This was the play place at Space Center Houston when I was a child. I’m the one waving from the cockpit. My sister is the one in the pink poodle skirt climbing out of the back.
I was all consumed by the fascinating displays, the tours (which at the time included areas like the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, or the giant pool), the Starship Gallery, and the IMAX films. Although my five-year-old sister and six-year-old self were probably most fascinated by the metal shuttle play structure outside of the cafeteria, which I was said to see is no longer there.
It was on that historic visit that I found what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. As we left through the turnstiles that kept track of the number of visitors to the center, I proudly proclaimed to my parents, and anyone else who was exiting at closing time, “I am going to work for NASA one day.”
My parents thought it was an adorable childhood phase that I would one day grow out of. I never did. Well, there were a couple of times that I thought I might want to be something else. When Men in Black came out, the first PG-13 movie I saw in the theaters (a big deal to nine-year-old me), I wanted to be a Woman in Black. There was another period of about a month in the second grade when I was convinced that I’d be a paleontologist, and about 6 months in 8th grade when I was exploring the idea of being an architect. Despite all of this, I continued to feel as though I was supposed to work for NASA.
When I was in the 4th grade, I was the commander of our playground’s hemispherical jungle gym which was my spaceship and a couple of my friends and I would go on planetary exploration missions out of our ship to evaluate the alien life around us. I also turned my room into a spaceship in fourth grade. I got a large sheet of black plastic that I placed over my window and poked holes in it so that the constellations would shine into my room during the day when my lights were out. Then I replaced the lights in my ceiling fan with 25 watt blue lights.
I think the whole thing kind of weirded my mom out a bit, but she decided it was harmless and allowed me to continue entertaining myself with my own intergalactic missions that I conducted in my room. I was always really good at entertaining myself, and pride myself on continuing to have a strong, healthy imagination.
I was always a really nerdy kid. Starting in first grade at my elementary school, each class had a day and time once a week to visit the school library and check out books. It didn’t take me very long to find the science section. Each week I would bring home books about animals, dinosaurs, planets, etc. My mom grew very concerned. She called a conference with my first grade teacher about it.
“Kerianne keeps bringing home these books that are way over her reading level, and I’m afraid that she doesn’t know where the books that she can read are,” she told my first grade teacher.
At the next library session my teacher made me check out a Clifford book, and wouldn’t let me get the book on arctic seals that I wanted. I was so mad. When I got home, I jumped off the bus, stormed into my house, sat next to my mother, opened the book, and read the entire thing in a very deliberately agitated manner before closing the book and looking up at my mother in six-year-old rage.
“I have all the picture books that I need in my room, and I want to read science books. Why won’t you let me read science books?” I demanded of my mother.
“You can’t read all of the words in the science books,” my mother said in a cautiously apologetic tone.
“Maybe I can’t read all of the words, but I can read most of them, and I can figure out the rest, plus I can learn a lot from the pictures,” I said.
My mom and my teacher never made me check out another Clifford, Bernstein Bears, or other popular children’s books ever again.
In second grade they had this really cool interactive CD kit about the solar system at the book fair, and I begged my mother for it.
“There’s only one left!” I urged her.
I was exceptionally disappointed when it was gone the next day. My hopes and dreams were dashed and my need for knowledge of the solar system would never be satisfied. My mom told me years later that seeing my disappointment just about broke her heart, and she thought about giving me the CD then, but was glad when she could see my reaction on Christmas morning. That was a really cool CD. I found it when I was cleaning out a bunch of boxes over winter break and although it had never seen an operating system newer than Windows 95, I couldn’t bring myself to toss it.
All through elementary school I really wanted to go to Space Camp. When I was 11 I put together a MS PowerPoint presentation on the reasons why I thought my parents should send me to Space Camp. I felt I was pretty justified in my requests and somewhere between the adorableness of their 11-year-old with her PowerPoint and the desperate desire I expressed, my parents agreed to send me to Space Camp. I was so excited that I was counting down the days every day for 2 months.
Then after Space Camp, I practically lived in my flight suit for the rest of the summer. I still have it in my closet at home.
Stay tuned for Part II where I will tell you about how I found Embry-Riddle and started working for NASA…