He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
–Friedrich Nietzsche



I’m amazed at how often over the last few weeks this simple yet powerful word arose: why.

This spring marks 30 years since I graduated from high school, and recently I found myself thinking about those times.  In particular, I was thinking about my high school physics teacher who was a tremendous, positive influence on me.  Whether she realizes it or not, she led me on a quest: to ask why.  Why does the world work the way it does?  Why does gravity exist?  Why should objects in motion remain in motion?  Looking back, I can identify this time as the genesis in me for seeking a deeper understanding of the framework that describes how things work around us.  That is why I chose to major in physics in college, and led to a career at NASA.  Looking back on that journey from high school to NASA, I’m blown away at how a simple question has led me on the path I’ve chosen.  For all that, Ms. Matney, thank you.

Flash forward to current events….

In the NASA human spaceflight world, we’re moving ahead to the launch of shuttle mission STS-133 next week, while earlier this week we saw the release of the President’s budget for 2012 that reinforces the direction established last year for the future of human spaceflight.  Closer to home, the team continues to forge ahead on defining a strategic path for mission operations in Houston that encompasses a future of operating the International Space Station in all likelihood, and an evolving and uncertain future involving NASA human spaceflight programs to come and helping the emerging commercial space sector succeed in its role of transporting humans to and from low earth orbit some day.  The word why came up a number of times this week: Why should we help commercial space?  Why should we pursue such-and-such as a strategic element.  And so on.

Although here in the latter case the journey is much shorter in duration than that I described from high school, the outcome is perhaps no less profound.  By asking why questions concerning the future of human spaceflight and our role in it, we begin conversations about “because…”.  From that, we learn a deeper meaning that allows us to ask why again.  Each time we ask why we gain a deeper understanding.

That is what I learned from Ms. Matney.

It starts with asking why.


Text © Joe Williams 2011

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto