Daddy, why did the space shuttle crash?
No one knows, sweetie. Right now they think part of the wing might have been broken, but they don’t know for sure and they may never know.
Was it because the astronauts were bad? Did they make bad decisions?
No, sweetie. It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t do anything wrong. But being an astronaut has always been dangerous, and they were getting ready to land, which is the most dangerous part of being an astronaut.
Daddy, did the astronauts have children?
Yeah, sweetie, some of them did.
What will happen to them?
Well, they will keep living with their mommies or daddies.
Yeah, sweetie, two of the astronauts were women. Didn’t you know?
Yep, they were.
Can you bring me a paper from work with a picture of the astronauts?
Were they the first women to be astronauts?
No, sweetie, women have been going up in space for a while, now. But just like the men, you have to be very strong and very brave and work very hard and study very hard. But if you do, you could be an astronaut, too. Would you like to be an astronaut some day?
I don’t think so.
Because it’s too dangerous.
Well, sweetie, just remember, for one thing, it might not be so dangerous by the time you grow up. And for another thing, some of the most important things people ever do are very dangerous. Besides, you don’t have to decide right now what you want to be. OK?
That conversation took place two days after the shuttle crashed. On the one hand, it’s a unique conversation, and there’s every reason to think and hope we won’t have to have another one like it. But on the other hand, it’s not too dissimilar in kind from other conversations we have had about her future, about what she might do — not necessarily for a living, but just because it interests her.
There are far more opportunities for girls now than when I was a kid, and I want her to take advantage of all of them that look appealing to her. But she’s to some extent a timid kid, one who likes to spend a lot of time watching before she tries something new and one who has a lot of fears she can’t always name, even with her way-past-4-year-old vocabulary.
I don’t want her to be ruled only by her fears, and I don’t want to denigrate them, either, so I struggle with how to relate to her sometimes. I’ve always thought that every 4-year-old should want to be an astronaut, for reasons I can’t even begin to explain, and on some irrational level it bugs me that my 4-year-old might not want to.
Except that in the weeks since that conversation took place, she has watched and learned, and her attitude seems to be, well, evolving. She has seen astronauts on TV; she has asked questions about what astronauts do and how one gets to be an astronaut. These days, when we’re ready to go downstairs for breakfast, she begs us, “Carry me like an astronaut,” by which she means carry her upside-down so that her hair will float around her head like that of an astronaut in zero gravity. She knows that some of the astronauts were doctors, and coincidentally or not she has mentioned a couple of times in the past few weeks that she might like to be a doctor when she grows up.
She’s got the compassion and empathy to be a physician; whether she has the science chops is another matter, one for which genetics does not bode well. But that’s not really the issue or the point. The point is that in her own way, at her own pace, she’s examining her own fear, day by day.
And night by night, she looks for a moment at the newspaper section I brought home for her, the one with the photo of the disintegrating shuttle that everyone saw, run the full width of the page; with the word DISASTER in 3-inch-high letters; with the photo underneath of the seven astronauts in their orange flight suits, the five men and the two women.
And then, just before Bible stories and bed, she peeks out her window for a moment to look at the stars.