My Lifelong Love Affair with NASA

Standing with coworkers in front of the Orion test spacecraft. Photo by Anna Hintz.

This week, I joined the Mars mission (no alien wisecracks, please).  My name is on the Orion test spacecraft—the full scale prototype that actually tested the landing methods used upon reentry into earth’s atmosphere. 

 NASA made one-of-three scheduled stops atScience MuseumOklahomaon Jan 25 so that visitors could view the Orion as it travels from the testing site at White Sands, New Mexico to its destination at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   

 A Historic Autograph

I went to see the capsule with co-workers from the zoo—we walked the short distance to theScienceMuseumOklahoma, and had uninterrupted time to view Orion before the museum opened to the public.  According to the spokesperson traveling with the test module, adding our signatures to the metal panels of the capsule provides inspiration to NASA, the engineering crews and the astronauts working on the project. 

 For good measure, I added the names of my two favorite little guys, Cooper and Brayden, who will soon be old enough to watch live footage of Orion’s mission as it unfolds in history.     

 The first unmanned mission into orbital space is scheduled for 2014.  If all goes well, astronauts will then travel farther into the solar system than ever before, with the goal of eventually landing humans on Mars.

My autograph on the Orion test spacecraft panel. Photo by Amy Stephens.

Back When I Trained Young Astronauts…

I have a special fondness for space exploration.  During college, I taught classes at the Air Space Museum of Oklahoma (then housed at the Omniplex).  I even had a brief career working for NASA, when I wrote teaching curriculum for their Young Astronauts program.  I was immersed in space travel for years; watching children’s eyes light up at the idea of becoming astronauts some day.  My favorite lesson was about the inventions that came about to combat zero-gravity in space—items that now benefit us every day, such as Velcro, bar coding, ear thermometers, ski boots, and cordless tools.

 Of course, I also remember the horror of seeing the spaceship Challenger explode before my eyes, as I watched the live broadcast from my 7th grade classroom.     

Contact with Mars

Even now, space exploration creeps back into my life when I least expect it.  In 2009, Distinctly Oklahoma magazine asked me to write an article celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the moon landing.  I researched seven Oklahomans who were critical to the space industry; men and women who were test pilots, engineers and astronauts.

 I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with Donna Shirley, who managed the Mars Exploration mission, in which the Sojourner robot transmitted the first pictures from Mars’ surface in 1997.    

 Shirley and I shared little in common—she was a daredevil pilot prior to her NASA career, and I don’t even like going down a slide.  But we both have the same taste in reading, loving author Laurie King and Carolyn Hart (who is another Oklahoman I interviewed). Carolyn Hart, text only; Carolyn Hart, Oklahoma’s Agatha Christie

 In her book, Managing Martians, Shirley said, “The generation that had grown up watching Star Trek and Star Wars hadn’t seen a planetary landing in its lifetime.  Even if my feet weren’t going to make their mark on Martian soil, Sojourner’s tracks would be the next best thing.”  

 Although Shirley is now retired, she too, watches as NASA takes its next step toward Mars exploration.  That step will be viewed by a new generation of space hopefuls, such as Cooper and Brayden.  Although they are too young to understand that now, I hope that someday they will feel proud to have their names signed onto the test capsule that will likely be displayed in some museum—a show of support for the next “giant leap for mankind.”

 Further information and video from NASA is available at


Here’s the opening excerpt from “Fly Me To The Moon and Mars” by Amy Dee Stephen, published in Distinctly Oklahoma, July 2009 (I think it’s one of my best pieces):

It’s surprising that the television show Leave it to Beaver survived, because it debuted the same night the Space Age began.  While freckle-faced Beaver worried about expulsion from school, Americans faced a much larger threat. 

That night, Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the world’s first satellite into space.  Radios across the globe picked up the transmitted beep…beep…beep of Sputnik 1; a pulsing proclamation that Russia, “the enemy,” was more technologically advanced than the United States…  Oklahoma Astronauts; Oklahoma Astronauts, text only             

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