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The Cosmic Pull

9. Lightning McQueen™

Plastic bath toy. 
On loan from Ryan Kobrick.

This is my son’s toy. We were at Disney World with my parents and came across a little kiosk selling Cars themed toys. My parents saw that Raffi was interested in the cars, and there was a set of five bath toys. And we’re like, oh, he loves playing in the bath. This is a cool connection. So they ended up buying it for him. It was one of the first things that he picked out in front of them, so they had this moment on the bench of opening the toy together. It was really exciting because yes, sure it’s buying stuff. But at the same time, they were really connecting. And that kicked off years of a Cars obsession. The bath is an evening family ritual, helping him, and playing with the toys. So this toy got a lot of use, and love.

My 2018 mission to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah was the first one I’d done while married with children. He was about three. I thought, how do I bring him with me and maybe get him excited about space, because I’d been doing all this other outreach with Yuri’s Night, being a professor, and working with different age groups.

So I brought Lightning McQueen, and he prepared letters for every day of the two-week mission for me, a different envelope to open, puzzle pieces of Lightning McQueen. So, each day I would build the puzzle, take a photo, send it to him, and tell him very roughly what I did that day. And it was a way of connecting back to him. It became this different way of looking at the entire mission. How do we stay connected when we’re so remote? We can’t talk in real time, and that’s not something a small child can understand at all.

The other reason I picked Lightning McQueen to bring to the field was because, you know, being bath-proof and child-proof, he seemed like the perfect candidate to withstand the harsh Martian environment. And it’s kind of cool to think about bringing a red toy to the Red Planet.

The main purpose of being at MDRS is that the fieldwork that you're doing there is analogous to fieldwork you would do on Mars, because it's an ancient sea lake bed and you're looking for signs of former life. And it looks like Mars. It's all red, and the terrain is very barren. There's maybe a patch of moss here and there, but just the environment itself is so immersive that, you know, that's been one of the reasons why I've gone back over the years.

Forging Connections