When you are young, you are told to pursue your dreams; to reach for the unreachable and somehow accomplish the impossible. As a sixteen year old, I was uncertain of what I wanted to be when I grew up. My parents told me to make a list of things I enjoyed and perhaps a career that matched my interests would reveal itself to me.
As a track athlete and cheerleader, I knew I wanted a job that incorporated physical activity and teamwork. I inherited a love for craftsmanship and working with tools from my father, who was an electrician. I had also taken time to learn American Sign Language (ASL) in high school, which instilled an appreciation for learning new languages. It seemed that a job that included each of these aspects would be a perfect fit.
When I was sixteen, something new was abuzz at NASA and was spreading like wildfire. A teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was selected to be an astronaut. Realizing that anyone with enough drive could become an astronaut, I began to research the job that being an astronaut entails. Christa McAuliffe inspired me to search and reach for a goal that I thought was unreachable. I found that becoming an astronaut required teamwork, communication, and a knack for using tools; the perfect job for me. At this point, I knew what I wanted to do, but I still had no idea how to get there.
After finishing high school, I attended California State at Fullerton and pursued my interest in chemistry. Although I liked chemistry, I didn’t know how far I would take it or how it would apply to my goal of becoming an astronaut. Taking the advice of an advisor, I decided to become a research assistant and continue with my education at graduate school, which eventually culminated in a PhD from the University of California at Davis. However, I still wanted to pursue my original goal of becoming an astronaut.
Upon the completion of graduate school, I decided it was time to apply. At the same time I submitted my astronaut application, I began a post-doctoral fellowship in chemistry at the University of California at Irvine. I waited about a year for a call back from NASA and the chance to interview. I didn’t know what to expect. The only jobs I had had before were for my father, student jobs, and a research assistant job. I was nervous to say the least, but I decided that the best course of action was to just be myself; it was my only chance at capturing my dream.
Several months later, while at work in my lab at UC Irvine, I received a phone call. I was completely frozen. The Chief of the Astronaut Office was on the line and asked if I wanted to begin training as an astronaut for NASA. I was so shocked I hyperventilated and was unable to speak, so he then asked me to consider the position and that he would call back later to get my final decision. This gave me plenty of time to come back to reality and run ecstatically around the science building, embracing my friends and sharing the great news with everyone. Later, when he called back, he asked if I would only share the news with my immediate family. Unfortunately, it was a little too late for that!
I finally began my first real job as an astronaut with training at Johnson Space Center. I was overwhelmed and inspired by the excitement all of the employees had for space exploration.
During my time in space, one of my favorite things I was able to do was make a video for the deaf community to tell them about the International Space Station and life onboard. On the space station, the whole crew was ecstatic about the video and fascinated to learn some sign language. Each crewmate had a speaking role in the video. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to invite everyone on board, no matter what language they spoke.
Through the ten years astronauts have been living in space, NASA has gotten smarter about how to keep them happy and healthy. Much of that involves keeping in touch with family. Naturally, it’s a greater challenge from orbit, even greater when your husband is at the same time deployed on a naval carrier, flying jets, and helping to defend our country. Though we made contact almost every other weekend, there were often long periods of time when we didn’t hear from each other. With jobs like ours, we just kept faith in God that each other were safe. Time spent with him during family conferences certainly made for some of the most personally meaningful moments of my life on orbit.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned on my journey of becoming and serving as an astronaut for NASA, is to not give away my self-confidence. I believe it’s a lesson I’m still learning. You come into this world with a set of God-given talents, and who are you to shy away from them? It’s a strange fear that you’re not good enough. Add on top of that whatever experience you’ve gained in life to complement your set of skills and personality, and it’s the tumbles you make on the path of life that seem to stand beside you like a coach yelling from the sidelines. I’ve learned there’s a way to deafen that voice in your head that chips away self esteem and makes you hesitate. The easy road shelters you from failure so you don’t make a mistake. The road you want, though, takes belief, determination, and balance (there’s such a thing as too much confidence). Best course is to know yourself and like who you are. Understand what it is you enjoy doing and don’t worry if it doesn’t match what motivates “everyone else”. You are the best at being you (and not someone else) and are at your best when what you do makes you happy. Great is what you’ll be and confidence is the bag you carry it in.
At the age of 16, Tracy Caldwell Dyson—like so many others—found an admirable role model in certain teacher who had accomplished the seemingly impossible. “Christa McAuliffe inspired me to search and reach for a goal that I thought was unreachable,” Caldwell Dyson said, even though at the time she had no idea how to get there. That goal was to become an astronaut. Judging from her success, she clearly found her way and became a highly successful member of the Astronaut Corps. As an astronaut, she has also become the kind of teacher she had admired in Christa McAuliffe. For example, during her time in space, Ms. Caldwell Dyson made a video for the deaf community to teach them about the International Space Station and life on board. She heightened the crew’s interest in learning some sign language, as well. She also learned a thing or two about herself along the way. “One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned on my journey of becoming and serving as an astronaut for NASA is to not give away my self-confidence. I believe it’s a lesson I’m still learning.” The path she ultimately took to reach her goal was paved with challenges, but she traversed it with confidence and determination. She encourages others to follow their dreams, and understand that the difficult road—rather than the easy one—is the road that will take you to your ultimate destination. Ms. Caldwell Dyson earned a BS in chemistry from California State University at Fullerton and a PhD in chemistry from the University of California at Davis.