What I didn’t expect to take away from a trip to NASA

By Nola Tolsma | January 3, 2020

In photo above: Nola Tolsma, right, with Kelvin Manning, left, who is the associate director at the Kennedy Space Center.

A lot of things come to mind when one thinks of NASA. For me, it’s innovation, exploration, the unknown, space, President Kennedy’s rousing speech on going to the moon, rocket launches…the list goes on.

When I accepted an invitation to visit the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral to watch a rocket launch to the International Space Station, all of those things swirled in my imagination. Unsurprisingly, I did walk away having experienced all of those things, but what stood out the most was something wholly unexpected.

The Kennedy Space Center’s Senior Management team was recognized as the 2019 winner of the Service to America Medals’ Management Excellence award. They were honored for their dedication, resourcefulness and unrelenting perseverance in the transformation of the Kennedy Space Center into a multiuser spaceport after the conclusion of the International Space Station program and what could have been the end of the KSC.

This team is the reason the KSC not only exists but thrives to this day. What I was able to see a glimpse of during my trip was the why behind their dedication to NASA.

As you may know, the NASA program has lost three crews in its tenure. The Apollo 1 crew that never left launchpad 34 in 1967, the Challenger crew in 1986 and the Columbia crew in 2003.

At the Kennedy Space Center, there are exhibits created for and dedicated to each of these crews, their lives and their families. If I’m being honest, I didn’t expect much from these memorials.

Would you want to remind every one of the 1.5 million visitors that walk through your doors each year of the losses and mistakes of the space program? NASA does. They want every person to remember, reflect on and honor the lives that were lost in our pursuit to discover and expand knowledge.

Robert Cabana and Kelvin Manning, the director and associate director of the KSC, walked us through the Forever Remembered exhibit, which thoughtfully and individually remembers each of the 14 astronauts lost in the Columbia and Challenger missions and the Ad Astra Per Aspera exhibit that remembers the 3 lives lost on the Apollo 1 mission.

These losses direct the decisions that are made today; not out of fear, but out of wholehearted dedication to never making those mistakes again. The mistakes that were made have taught us. They push us to be better. They inspire us to work harder. We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.


Nola Tolsma