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Adventures of a Future Astronaut – Part 1: First Week in Huntsville!

So I’m working for NASA.

Just writing that gives me chills. Anyone who knows me knows that I have many dreams, but this has been a dream of mine since I knew what NASA was and since I was a little girl and used to float in my dark pool at night, staring up at the cosmos to simulate the feeling of floating in space. Well now I’m here…. In Huntsville, Alabama.

Before arriving in Huntsville, I had heard that this is the “Christian-right center of America”. I was mentally preparing myself for a huge culture shock, coming from diverse, liberal Los Angeles. Well, it’s only been a week, but so far I have been pleasantly surprised by Huntsville’s charm, beauty, livability, and friendliness. Since my arrival I was also told that Huntsville has the largest concentration of PhD’s per capita, so there’s that. This is a ROCKET TOWN. Like, these people are proud and excited about rockets. There are museums dedicated to them, parks named after astronauts, pieces of rocket engines strewn about not so different from art installations in L.A parks. Most people here either work for NASA or are engineers of some kind. It’s a funny little nerdy oasis in the middle of the Bible Belt; and there are good people here.

Just some of the rocket bits strewn about Huntsville – these are on the arsenal outside the building that I’ll be taking a  ‘Solid Rocket Propulsion Design’ course in.

But I’ll start with Airplane Girl. My connecting flight from Atlanta to Huntsville was a speedy 40 minutes. I sat down in my aisle seat and a young woman took her assigned middle seat next to me. We soon realized the window seat was most likely empty, so Airplane Girl (as she was affectionately named on our flight) assured me she would move so we could both have more room. Needless to say, no one came for that window seat, we got to chatting, and Airplane Girl never moved over. She was really my first introduction to Huntsville and I was happy to find that we had so much in common despite growing up in completely different environments. Before I knew it, Airplane Girl offered to give me a ride to my new Huntsville home so I didn’t’ have to Uber, despite the fact that her family was waiting for her at home to watch the football game. (Football is HUGE in Huntsville. Like…. So big). I would most likely never take a ride from a stranger in LA, but Airplane Girl was so friendly and we hit it off so well, I trusted her! (Famous last words, I know). Southern hospitality is real, y’all. Since that fateful plane ride, I have met Airplane Girl and her parents for dinner at none other than Cracker Barrell! ‘It’s slap yo’ momma good!’ – Airplane Girl. I have found my adopted Alabama family, and I couldn’t be happier. They really are the cutest and I’m looking forward to all of the adventures we have planned for my time here (weekend trips to Nashville, Dollywood, Chattanooga, historic trolley tours of Huntsville, train rides, home cooked Southern meals!) I’ve found my Southern sister!

My new Alabama family is so happy to feed me delicious Southern food!

Usually when I start something new, I’m overcome with almost crippling anxiety that manifests itself in stomach knots. A new job, an audition, sometimes even a new social situation will illicit inner chaos. But not this time. Somehow I knew this is where I’m supposed to be right now and it just felt exciting more than anything. This is probably one of the biggest things I’ve ever done, and I walked into NASA on Tuesday morning feeling confident and calm. This past year has been a big one of emotional learning and growth for me – I’ve learned how to manage my stress better, welcome change better, trust the universe… and myself.

I am very excited about my project so far. I will be analyzing data we receive from a probe on the ISS (International Space Station) to understand how space weather affects the electromagnetic nature of the space station, astronauts, and space shuttles. What’s cool about NASA internships is that we’re doing REAL work for real things in space. And my project is open ended. By that I mean there are unanswered questions to things that NASA doesn’t understand and they’re leaving it to an intern to take a stab at solving the problem. To quote JPL’s motto, I am here to ‘dare mighty things’.

My building aka new home for the next 14 weeks.

On my first day my mentor, Emily, took me around to meet everyone on the project. Unsurprisingly, all were exceedingly welcoming and nice. That’s the thing about NASA, it’s a family, and everywhere you go, you will feel at home and find people who are excited and willing to share their work with you and answer your questions. But it wasn’t long before I was reminded that I am indeed, in Alabama. I met one of the team leads who, in addition to working as a rocket scientist and branch director (no big deal) is a hobby farmer and storm chaser. My heart cried with happiness when I heard this. Storm chaser? Like the 1996 Helen Hunt/Bill Paxton blockbuster film, ‘Twister’?! Everyone who works at NASA is so interesting and multi-faceted. These are not your typical pocket protector computer nerds. To give you a visual, aforementioned storm-chaser/rocket scientist, has a life-size cardboard standee of a cow outside his office. It’s just wonderful.

Official!

The daily commute to the arsenal (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is located on Redstone Arsenal, a U.S. army base) is beautiful, all of the buildings are surrounded by stretches of green plains, trees, and ponds. This first week has already been jam-packed with ‘stuff’. That’s the fast-paced Los Angeleno in me, but I’ve just gotta see it all! I’ve visited a ‘Super Target’, eaten at Cracker Barrel, was met with open arms by the Huntsville swing dancing scene, went to a cool bar downtown, traveled to Georgia for a 7.5 mile hike that led to a beautiful waterfall, and took a Sunday drive today after visiting the only coffee shop in town open on Sundays. It’s been a great first week.

One of the thoroughfares on the Arsenal.
Hiking in Cloudland Canyon State Park.

Cracker Barrel! I sat on one of these chairs (they’re for sale!) with Airplane Girl and chatted after devouring a delicious meal. True southern style.

Honest Coffee! The only coffee house in town open on Sunday. Guaranteed to run into someone you know here.

I’ve always been an explorer, an adventurer, seeking perspective through new cultures and experiences. I think that’s why NASA has always been so attractive to me. Space is the ultimate frontier, and NASA is full of people like me who are working to understand our universe and who get so excited about space exploration. I’ve also been trying to be more intentional about putting my own good energy out into the universe to see what it throws back at me. And I’ll tell you, the universe has dealt me a pretty good hand right now. I never thought I’d spend three and a half months in Huntsville, Alabama, but I’m looking forward to the thunderstorms, cicadas buzzing in the trees, and doing life just a little bit slower. Stay tuned.

Viva La Revolución! An American in Cuba

I visited Myanmar soon after they opened their borders to tourism, so it only seemed fitting that the next country on my list of places to visit be…. Cuba. Technically, the embargo still hasn’t been lifted and tourism to Cuba isn’t totally Kosher, but hey, that makes it all the more desirable now, doesn’t it? I knew that I had to make it to the land of cigars, music, rum, and Castro before everyone else did. Getting to Cuba wasn’t nearly as complicated or stressful as I prepared myself for, and will only get easier as relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to develop.

For my one-week excursion, I decided to focus solely on Havana and the nearby beaches to truly soak in the Habanero culture. Lodging options in Havana are fairly straightforward. You either stay in one of the government owned hotels (expensive) or in a casa particular with a native Cuban family (I went this route). Cubans are extremely friendly and contrary to popular belief, love Americans. I stayed with a lovely family thanks to a friend’s recommendation – which seems to be the “Cuban way” across the board. Need a place to stay in Trinidad? “I know someone there…” Want to take a taxi to Santa Maria beach? “My cousin drives an old ’65 Chevy. He’ll take you!” This is the Cubans own way of introducing capitalism into what has been a Communist nation since Fidel Castro led the Revolution in the 1950s.

Walking around Havana felt like being transported through time. The buildings from former dictator, Fulgencio Batista’s reign, once glimmering with the royal intricacies of Moorish, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Roman architecture, are now crumbling. But the vivid coats of paint that have been slapped on to cover up the city’s deterioration are actually quite charming, and the layers of Havana’s history can be seen through its architecture. The Bodeguita del medio, for example, once a regular hangout for the bohemian likes of Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is now adorned with scribblings and pictures of visitors past and present.

The vintage car situation in Havana is exactly what you imagine it to be. Once a major center for American car companies, after most trade to Cuba was cut off, all that was left were these vintage American cars and the strange Russian ones sent over in the 80s. I tried to ride in these beauties as much as possible, because riding along the Malecón (Havana’s famous coastal thoroughfare) in a ’55 Chevy convertible is a once in a lifetime experience.

Surprisingly, the food in Havana is not as scrumptious as you’d think. Those gooey pulled pork sandwiches you get at Versailles are replaced with who-knows-how-old deli ham and a slice of cheese slapped between a semi-stale roll. If you’re lucky, it will be pressed hot, nay warm, on a panini maker. But as a nation slowly emerging from its Communist cave, cuisine is not necessarily at the top of their to-do list. We did, however, discover a quaint little restaurant wedged in a tiny alley, off of the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana that had pretty amazing grilled seafood and tapas. It was there that we also met our new Cuban friend who called himself “Junior” and played guitar in the Cuban band that took up residency at the restaurant. We ended up eating there several times, both for the food, and to listen to the enchanting music played by our new friends. My love for Latin music and secret desire to be a drummer led them to invite me to play attempt percussion with them for a rendition of Besame Mucho. As the afternoon faded to twilight and then on to a humid Cuban night, I let the hours go by as I sipped Cuban beer and let the music take me away.

I  only saw a small slice of the vibrant Caribbean country, but one of my favorite memories of the trip was a day visit to Viñales, a valley region 3 hours outside of Havana. Here is where the lush, exotic landscape really takes over and the nutrient-rich soil shines a deep red that feeds the tobacco, coffee, and fruit crops that grow there. We rode horses through the valley – mine’s name was Negro, and the sweet smell of tobacco leaves and the vast, luscious foliage around me left me in a daze of ecstasy. After a while, I asked the guide if we could run and before I knew it he was yelling “Corre caballo!” and we were galloping across the open valley alone – no other tourists in sight. As cliche as it sounds… I really felt free.

No visit to Cuba is complete without a visit to the cigar factory. Officially, the Partagas Factory is the only government approved cigar production in the country, but many street vendors sell lesser quality versions. Some of the cigars at Partagas are even “Fidel approved”, marking his personal favorite stogies. I opted for traditional Cohibas in addition to some artisan ones that I bought from Leonardo, my new cigar making friend from Viñales.

Much of Cuba’s charm truly emerges when you simply get lost wandering the streets of Old Havana. You may turn a corner to find the most enchanting band of musicians playing yet another rendition of Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan”. Or stumble across an alley where local children are playing with a kite. Around another corner is a Libreta, a store where food and other goods are rationed out according to the Communist government order. Each breath of humid Cuban air is sticky sweet of papaya, tobacco, and a little bit of gasoline. Each gaze is colorful and animated. These people have soul and are just trying to make it work with what they’ve got. Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating; Cuba is a country of undeniable and enigmatic magic.

On one of my last nights in Cuba, I walked, as I tend to do when I visit new places. I walked along the Malecón, the 5-mile coastal esplanade that marries the city to the sea. Originally constructed to provide protection for the city, with the Morro Castle fortress perched across the water, now the roadway is more popular for twilight promenades and a haven for fisherman. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the chance to visit this magnificent country before many other Americans. And I also couldn’t help but feel a little scared at what opening up the borders to the outside world would do to the island that has lived in isolation for so long. But that’s life and things change. So as the sun set over the Malecón and the sky turned from blue to gold, I thought to myself…. “This moment right now will never change. And it is magic.”

*Note – originally posted in August 2015