Have you ever seen 55 5th graders dressed in identical blue rocket sweatshirts at an airport gate? You can imagine the excitement as we gathered at Gate 58 in Tulsa International Airport.
Many of my classmates had never been on a plane before so as we boarded and scrambled for seats, the kids buzzed with enthusiasm. We’d taken a family vacation to Disney World two years earlier, so I felt like somewhat of a pro with all that experience behind me. I settled into my seat and snapped the seat belt together with confidence. As we taxied for takeoff, the buzz increased to a rumble, like a space shuttle readying for liftoff. I looked around at the thrill on my classmates’ faces and smiled. After all our hard work, our 5th grade trip to NASA was about to begin.
After landing in Houston, we went directly to Johnson Space Center. Exploring the museums at NASA was a dream come true. I’d been interested in space flight since the Challenger exploded in 1986. It was the first time I grasped the danger of space travel. I still remember seeing the tears in Mr. Beltzner’s eyes that day. He wouldn’t be my teacher for another three years, but the impact the disaster had on him affected me as well. So touring the museum and NASA’s mission control room was amazing and emotional.
We looked at models of the Lunar Module and I tried to imagine what it was like to land on the moon. We ate space ice cream and wandered around the Rocket Park. The sheer size of the rockets boggled my mind. Did astronauts really strap themselves into tiny cockpits and ride atop these monstrous machines into space? And yes, I did walk away wanting to become an astronaut.
The day wasn’t over once we left NASA. We took the Bolivar Ferry out to Bolivar Point and back again. Then we checked into our hotels and had a small party celebrating our first day in Houston. Lindsay and I roomed with our music teacher, which seemed strange in that weird way all kids feel when they encounter teachers outside the classroom. Our dad watched over three of our most adventurous 5th grade boys. We wondered if he would make it through the night.
He did and the next morning the entire class took a walk on the beach. The seagulls swooped down on us and we shrieked and ran up and down the wet sand on a cold and windy day, happy to be alive and in this special place. Jason asked me to go steady with him on that beach. At eleven, this was, of course, a serious offer. I immediately said yes. We continued to hang out as much as we had before. But it made the weekend feel all the more special.
On Galveston, my dad paid for a trolley ride for all the kids in our designated group. I still remember the slack jawed amazement of the other kids as we shouted at them from the trolley while they stood on the sidewalk of the Strand and watched us cruise by.
A reporter from the Sapulpa Daily Herald traveled with us and recorded the trip in pictures and words. I’m grateful for our teachers’ foresight in this. It chronicled our journey from the beginning, and all of that fundraising, to the magnificent end. The trip was an eye-opening opportunity for 55 fifth graders from a small town, and I’ll never forget the weekend we all spent together.
But I’m even more grateful for the entire process that trip took – from collecting cans, to cow pie poker, to planning and the culmination of all our efforts, the trip itself. It spurred on my interests in space and travel. It taught me you have to work hard to accomplish dreams, and that sometimes those dreams take some luck (thanks Pepsi Co), but that even that luck came through our hard work.
Taking a class of fifth graders to Houston for a weekend must have seemed an impossible feat to our teachers, but we were able to accomplish it together. And finally, that year taught me that when people believe in a vision, they unite behind it with excitement, energy and enthusiasm until it’s accomplished.
NASA’s motto is, “For the benefit of all.” In 1989, 55 5th graders lived out that motto, took flight, and saw an impossible dream come true.