From the moment I took my first steps across coal country, I realized how different I was while also noting these differences seemed mostly external.
I did not live in a house, with a yard with pets with whom to run.
I did not have summer or weekend vacations or road-trips, corralling across east and west, since that required a vehicle.
For I did not have musical instruments, to project my creativity.
I did not have much of a voice, cognizant of how alien my foreign experience sounded if spoken to my neighbors and peers who walked not too distant steps from me. In turn, they appeared to live light-years away from me, like on another planet with different customs, traditions, and resources.
Though I did have old parts and surplus machines to take apart, figure out how to fix, and put back together, healed.
I, also, had family and I learned from their American experience to craft and choose my own experiences.
From my younger brother, a child with many ailments, though with much courage, as I would hear him drum on and on for his obstructed ears to be seen. Doctors heard this drumming, but not see it, and in turn, defined for him his direction in life without giving him much of a choice.
From my mother, whom I knew had much intellect, but bereft of community and support, toiled away on evening shifts, testing her temperance in turn, to support us, her family.
From my father, walking miles and miles in any condition — literally and figuratively — to serve, never for himself. And while his life’s experiences gave him much wisdom, I saw him marginalized in his American occupation for being without paper, of higher learning that is. He would find means, to support and as well as for him to express, ironically in higher learning, by providing care and service to students from across the world. In return, many called him “Father”.
With these observations in mind, I continued to scan the horizon and beyond. While considering America and its dreams, are these dreams also not crafted by those who looked beyond? Thus, I questioned and learned — the steps of exploration.
From my own explorations, I learned of contemporaries that discovered America in their own way. I listened and learned from others like me, but also those not like me.
I read Asimov and learned how a Foundation was set, and how to chart a course years ahead.
I read Rand and learned of one’s worldly perceptions and experiences can be shaped by their environment. Or one could shrug, and question objectively these external effects and chart their own course.
I would read Hickam and learned that those from coal country can chart journeys of their own to the stars.
With some knowledge in mind, I took my first steps with NASA, at the center to later be re-named after Katherine Johnson. In turn, discovering even history can be re-presented, if the right voices are heard.
And I discovered more: of Captain John McBride and Ron E. McNair, joining NASA in the same cohort of astronauts, though different trajectories. The former, a Mountaineer like me, would lead the first space shuttle launch. The latter, not a Mountaineer like me, but a “Mountaineer” in his own way, a first-generation minority, had opportunities cut short by a disaster from the Challenger.
Fate tied me to both; John, as a mentor, learning from his experiences, and from Ron, not learning directly, but from his family. His family persevered to found the Ron McNair Scholars Program which enabled many more, including myself, the opportunity to grow. For this opportunity enabled me to pursue an academic trajectory in a direction I could choose.
For I chose a path within the space program, not for its rockets, its satellites, or its shuttles, though skilled I am with machines. I chose a path for the people, a different-kind of machine.
For the space program has always been about people, creating an environment separate from space but through space, enabling expression of its people. There would be no steps on the Moon if Neil Armstrong had not been there. And he could not have taken those steps, if not for the vast group of STEAM colleagues to lift and place him and crew on the Moon’s foreign surface.
And learning of Neil and those in the corps, I lifted off and landed away from a soil rich with coal, and instead this time, with oil. In the “home” of human spaceflight, Texas, I studied deeply into our physiology, and how we adapt when reaching the stars. I continued to push boundaries: studying not just within my area, but also expanding my touch to other areas, to iterate, to innovate.
Upon my doctoral culmination, I concluded with more questions; not necessarily with epistemology inquiry, but rather specifically, the scientific foundation itself.
And to understand the roots of science, of which we now study its branches, I would read the Republic and dialogues of similar and distinct ilk. For why, should experiences be shaped by factors outside ones control?
My next chosen steps took me to Florida, the launch site of human spaceflight where the fires of Apollo were first ignited to touch beyond our horizon. I continue, with new and continued studies of interdisciplinary investigation, the network and interwoven connections of multiple systems in space and medicine. My studies explore internal effects, while we are all experiencing external environmental effects, uprooted and uprooting to our surface across our American soil. Some hidden internally, now again seen externally; for how long and how much more?
We ponder our next steps, returning to the Moon through Artemis this time, not Apollo. Why do we return? Do we return with similar questions and challenges? Or now with answers and new questions, included with Artemis, to help our society grow?
In this spirit, we aim to work together, for the benefit of all, for one does not require to be the best to serve and be included in our endeavor to the stars. Service is defined by character, internal, and not accomplishments, external. If we chose the latter, then we speak of history and Apollo. If we so chose, instead, we could look to Artemis, and perhaps more.
Sunny Narayanan, PhD, is a first-generation, immigrant American that has held a life-long interest in encouraging diversity through education and inter-disciplinary research. For the entirety of his career, Sunny has been connected with NASA supporting its human space exploration objectives, though highlighting that we reach for the stars not just to learn more of our universe, but through this journey, learn more about ourselves as well.
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