As a little girl, my dream was to become an astronaut.
One of my early heroes was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. I imagined what it was like to be her, strapped into the space shuttle.
The countdown from Mission Control: "10, 9, 8...". On the launchpad, engines quaking, heart pounding "3, 2, 1, liftoff" taking me to a place few have ever seen.
Minutes later, I'm floating and staring back down at planet Earth.
How could I possibly complete that mission? At age 12, it was obvious. I had to go to Space Camp.
I wanted that feeling. (Oh, and a generous supply of astronaut ice cream and a spin in the chair, the Multi-Axis Trainer, which rotates in every possible direction.)
I grew up in Atlanta, which meant the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was a mere 200 miles away. I grabbed an adventurous classmate and pleaded my case to my parents to help me launch my space career. To my amazement, they agreed pretty much immediately and away I went.
It all starts with science
On day one, I'd pictured myself in a spacesuit, spinning and tumbling in a zero-gravity room.
In reality, what I discovered was an institution that takes this first encounter with the world of space discovery very seriously, and rightly so.
Of course, it all starts with the science: the math, the space program, the solar system, and there is tons to learn. At Space Camp, we were "up and at 'em," sitting in classes, taking tests that culminated, at the end of the week, with the mission itself.
Obviously, I was thrilled to learn that all my work had paid off, and I was on my way.
I was selected as commander of my team's mission. There I was at 12: spacesuit, white boots, helmet -- "miles from Earth."
Spoiler alert: I did not become an astronaut. But when I look back to the summer of 1992 (or was it 1993?), my experience at Space Camp taught me several life lessons. First, as a young girl I was encouraged to satisfy my curiosity, especially in a field that wasn't exactly filled with women. It also exposed me to values like leadership, teamwork and endeavor. Plus few kids really know what they want to do so young. And Space Camp shows you the range of opportunity at NASA and beyond.
What was the next best thing to becoming an astronaut? Being a journalist who gets to go back to Space Camp and look at that time of my life through a different lens.
Only now, there are so many more opportunities for girls who dream of space and science. That's what I really wanted to focus on this time in Huntsville.
As I was recently there, I met young women from around the world.
Two Indian teenagers were bursting with confidence while showing off their knowledge in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).
I introduced them to my new NASA friend, Andrea Hanson, who oversees the astronauts' exercise program in space. She exemplifies what is possible for women and space in 2018.
And I met two classes of Americans when we were "walking on the moon." They may or may not become astronauts, but several of these girls wanted me to know they were just as talented as the boys.
I walked away from Space Camp delighted to see it has not only kept up with the space program, but also with education for all.
And these girls I met are budding rock stars in science. Meeting them just made me feel good about our future.
Oh, and of course I had to take one more spin in that rotating chair -- the very same machine from my youth -- just to make sure I still had the right stuff.
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