Serendipity and Generation Space

STS-1 launches on April 12, 1981. (NASA)

There are a lot of us who are part of Generation Space: every American born from the end of the 1950s, when Sputnik was launched by the Russians and NASA was founded in the United States, to the early 1980s, when the space shuttle program got off the ground. But we aren’t always aware of how broadly and deeply growing up with Apollo and Shuttle has influenced our lives.

Sometimes, though, we are reminded unexpectedly. That’s serendipity:

“[S]erendipity is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you. It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked. […] Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries.” –Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Books to ReadWhen Anna started reading Carole Radziwill’s book What Remains, she had no reason to think the space shuttle would be mentioned. The book is a memoir about falling in love with her husband, Anthony, who was John Kennedy’s cousin. Three weeks after Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette, who was Radziwill’s close friend, died in a plane crash, Anthony died from cancer. The book is about love and loss, not about technology and history. But Radziwill is roughly our age; she’s part of Generation Space.

So, on page 61, Radziwill explains why she became a journalist:

“Before I was a wife or a widow, I was a journalist, and that started in Annette Kriener’s office at ABC, on Sixty-Seventh and Columbus. Really it started ten months before on an ordinary January morning, watching TV in my parents’ kitchen. The space shuttle Challenger exploded, and an entire life occurred to me. From a thirteen-inch black-and-white television I saw a completely different world develop, beyond Suffern [where I’d grown up]. I watched the coverage and became absorbed with the network news anchors, and I made up my mind. As far-fetched as it seemed, I wanted to be there. I wanted to tell the story, not watch it.”

Radziwill, like us, was a college student on January 28, 1986. The space shuttle program changed the trajectory of her life.

As Anna was reading What Remains, we were also catching up with Season 5 of The Big Bang Theory. The male main characters in this series are the nerdiest of nerds and work at CalTech, though arguably, Howard Wolowitz—the engineer of the bunch—works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which counts among its successes Curiosity, the rover now perusing the surface of Mars. So The Big Bang Theory has an awareness of Generation Space, even though that’s a term we’ve coined.

Three of the main characters are played by Generation Space actors. Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard Hofstadter, who was born in Belgium in 1975, but grew up in Chicago in the 70s and 80s, meaning we were all Illinoisans then and making him six years old when the space shuttle began and ten years old when Challenger exploded in 1986. Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper, was born in 1973, making him eight years old when the space shuttle first launched in 1981. Simon Helberg, who plays Howard Wolowitz, was born the year before STS-1.

The limb of Earth intersects one of two Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. (NASA)

Still, when the series began in 2007, there existed no reason to expect Howard Wolowitz to fly as a payload specialist on a mission to the International Space Station. But there was Howard, strapped into the roomiest Soyuz capsule we’ve ever seen, in an episode that first aired on May 12, 2012, almost a year after the space shuttle program ended. What really surprised us, though, was that the other American astronaut on the mission was Mike Massimino, someone we’ve met and interviewed. (Massimino was born in 1962, so he’s Generation Space, too.) As the rocket launches, Massimino yells, “I love this part!”

At the end of the episode, Sheldon, who is watching the launch on television back home in Pasadena with rest of the gang, says, “Boldy go, Howard Wolowitz.” Sheldon’s wish is the wish of Generation Space, who grew up with Star Trek’s Enterprise and its five-year mission “to boldy go where no man has gone before.”

In these moments of exhilaration, happy accidents become anchored.

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