One Small Step for a Girl

I was on one of our family Zoom calls recently, when I saw my niece in the background of my brother’s screen. She was concentrating on her own laptop, motionless, in rapt attention at whatever it was that she was watching. As usual, our own chat lasted about one hour, and all through that time, my niece could be glimpsed at the other end of my brother’s kitchen, transfixed.

As we were finishing up, someone asked him what she was doing. As it transpired, this was the day of the Space X launch and my 16-year-old niece had apparently been following the events on a live stream since before the launch. She’s always been incredibly bright with a general interest in science (much like her father) but there was something in the Space X project that seemed to light a spark within her. From early in the morning, through to 5 o’clock that afternoon, she watched as the Space X Dragon module launched, ascended through the atmosphere, approached the International Space Station and so carefully and precisely docked successfully. I remember the day of the first Space Shuttle flight and landing (I was 12, almost 13) and I’m sure my parents remember the day when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins landed on the Moon. I think that for my niece, the day of the Space X docking will have the same I remember where I was when… feeling to it.

While, as I say, I remember the Space Shuttle launch well, for me it was an exciting diversion, but it was only temporary. I bought some books about astronomy but after a while I moved on to other things. But I’m sure that for others, that moment transformed their lives and set their futures in motion. Who knows how many researchers, engineers and astrophysicists are now doing important work because of their being inspired by the events that they were exposed to in July 1969 or April 1981?

Our lives are full of these Sliding Doors moments, when something that we do, or someone that we meet, or somewhere that we decide to visit, lights a small spark, which can turn into an unstoppable flame. The psychologist Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, has talked about high achievement needing talent and effort to create skill; and then skill and effort to lead to achievement. She also, however, says that if you don’t have an opportunity to learn, you also won’t develop skill. I think that this is why it is so important that we as parents and adults generally make sure that we are giving our children the opportunity to be exposed to as much as possible – who knows where it could lead?

(And as an interesting post script to this little tale, since the Space X event, my incredibly focused and impressive niece has decided that she wants to be involved in that world when she is older – and unlike me, she has the maturity and motivation to do something about it. She has started to teach herself Russian, which apparently is a significant help to those who would like to be involved in space flight; and even more impressive, she conducted an experiment whereby she locked herself in a small WC room for 72 hours, without phone or contact with anyone, in order to see if she could survive that kind of isolation! We often hear people bemoaning the younger generation, but the more I get to know young people, the less fear I have for the future).


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