National Astronaut Day Thoughts from Graham

Photo credit – HuthPhoto

Who I am is a measure of what I have done and what I aspire to do. Of course, I have always probed what I could do. If I remember correctly, I was in 1st grade when I was asked what I wanted to be, and with no real idea of what a career even was I took claim to wanting to be an astronaut. Even at that young age, it was one quick google search to realize that the chances of going to space were too small for my young brain to comprehend. After that, I dreamt of becoming a rock star, and even of working at Google - at least, until I realized I didn't particularly enjoy sitting in front of a computer all day.

There are few things more precious than a childhood dream, but we live in a world in which these dreams are abandoned in search of higher salaries which offer greater practicality. Space has always been in my mind, but it seemed too unattainable as a career and better suited as a hobby which I could only pursue by reading science fiction or going to the local planetarium. “Astronauting” was simply a dream which I couldn’t extrude into reality.

It was in the middle of my high school career - the time in school where the frenzy of assignments and career research counts the most, that I attended Higher Orbits Go For Launch! in the hopes of coming to new realizations about my place in the space program. As many kids knew how, I could list off the names of spacefarers on a sheet of paper, but I had never met one of these stoic adventurers in real life - or at least, that’s how I imagined them. In Higher Orbits, I met Greg Johnson, though he went by his Navy callsign during the event: “Box”.

Astronauts grow an inch or two in space, but they lose it in a matter of weeks of returning to Earth. Even without the extra height, Box towered over me like a gentle giant. He roamed around offering pictures and Smalltalk, but I was digging for something more.

I remember walking up to Box and asking how he made the decision to go into the Navy. It was a simple question, but I knew there was a story behind it. Box smiled from 2 feet above me and went on as if he knew just the right words to say, explaining to me the Mercury 7 astronauts which he wished to emulate. He noted that 4 of them were from the Navy and 3 from the Air Force, and how he figured he’d go the Navy route to give space a chance. He spoke so compassionately yet so humbly, bringing his story of space down to earth. When I emailed him a few months later with similar considerations for my career, he responded with paragraphs of advice by the day’s end.

Only on rare occasions do I look up to my heroes, but I look up to Box because if we share enough words, he can guide me down the same path. It’s all about knowing the right people, and I have no doubt that this spaceman in particular helped define a clearer and humbler vision for my future (even if it still includes strapping myself to the top of a rocket).

I have a great and fervent respect for all those who not only take the steps necessary to get where they want, but never let go of their dreams. The dreams that high school teachers will chuckle at only to tell you to do something more practical, more down to Earth. I learned a great deal about determination from my episodes with Box, and I grasped clearer understandings of what I thought I already knew. I learned that I would regret the things I don’t do more than the things that I do, and for that, Box can lay claim to a special place in my journey towards the space program.

About The Author

Graham Shunk is a high school senior in the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. He is a finalist in the NASA Grow Beyond Earth competition, and has designed one of 5 winning prototypes of dense-agriculture systems for sustainably growing food in microgravity. His goal is to continue pursuing impactful research that will help get humans to Mars by solving decades-old problems that astronauts will face in deep space. In his spare time, Graham enjoys flying Cessna aircraft, conversing in Russian with peers, as well as leading his school’s Rocketry Team, and will be attending Stanford University in the fall.

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