I wonder how many of us harbor the idea of floating weightless in space as one of those little life-long dreams so important to who we truly are. I’m thinking about this given the news that Randy Pausch the professor whose “last lecture” made him a symbol for the wisdom of everyday life experiences, passed away on July 25th from pancreatic cancer.
His lecture, delivered at Carnegie Mellon on Sept. 18, 2007, has become of course, first a YouTube phenomena and later a best seller book. His down-to-earth advice on growing up (he was grateful for being allowed to paint pictures on his walls), thoughts of his wife, on never giving up no matter how many brick walls must be confronted, struck a chord with millions of viewers and readers.
Amongst the remaining wishes of his life the professor mentioned wanting to experience floating in the weightlessness of zero-gravity. And there we are, confronted once again that for so many of us, there is something special about the frontier of space, a place as filled with gigantic planets and inconceivable forces, as with the wonder of floating and flying and running along alien surfaces.
Dr. Pausch realized that particular dream: NASA allowed him on one of their KC-135 zero-gravity missions. Even there he had to overcome yet another metaphoric brick wall. When his students in a virtual reality program won the right to fly aboard a KC-135 flight, it was understood that faculty members were not allowed. So Dr. Pausch applied as a journalist covering the mission to experience the thrill of zero-gravity.
Taken for granted was his desire to play for a football team; work with Disney, or to take part in a Star Trek film. Yet for those who came of age in the glory of the Apollo program, there remains a life-long wonder of what was then accomplished. Let us hope that this feeling towards space travel, and the desire to personally experience it, never becomes extinguished.
NASA does these sort of things badly, but an educational zero-gravity program named after Dr. Randy Pausch would be a fitting memorial for a man who moved so many with his clear-eyed list of the priorities of life.