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Mars and Special Needs

by Michelle K. Wolf

August 11, 2012 | 3:59 pm

My daughter likes to tease me that I can find something dealing with “special needs” in nearly everything I do—from picking movies that have a character with a disability to meeting a random person on the airplane who is a single mom raising two boys with autism. I’ve told her that the issues find me, not the other way around.

So there I was last Sunday night at the Pasadena City College for a “friends and family” event of the JPL Mars Science Lander (MSL) better known as “Curiosity”, taking on every anxiety-turning-into-joy moment with my husband, who is an engineer at JPL and had been part of the early stage planning for the mission, as well as part of the review team.  Out there on Mars, some 150 million miles away from us, an incredibly complex and awesome set of landing maneuvers were about to take place, but what did I see seated in the row in front of ours?

An adorable blond-haired boy around the age of 3, squirming, whining and obviously up way past his bedtime. When he stood up, I saw the orthotic braces on his small feet, the kind Danny also wore when he was young, to help straighten his feet and give some arch support. Many kids with cerebral palsy (CP) end up wearing them for a least a few years. For us, the worst part was trying to keep Danny still while they applied the plaster to make a mold of his feet, and since he was growing, we had to do new molds every 6 months.

At about 30 minutes before touchdown, I leaned forward to whisper to the Mom, “I couldn’t help but notice that your son is wearing orthotics just like our son who is away at camp,” She sat up in her chair and whispered back, “Yes, he’s got a mild case of CP and we are doing everything we can,” She got a little teary as I told her that they were doing a great job, and that her son was going to be okay.”

We talked for a few minutes about physical therapy and the merits of swimming while the computer graphics on the big screen in the front of us showed what they thought was happening with the spacecraft. The JPL engineers on the video were munching down their peanuts for good luck while my husband looked at graphs on his laptop.

As each of the entry, landing and descent stages happened, the crowd in the auditorium roared its approval, while the little boy was out of the room with his Mom. They came in a few minutes before the 10:31 pm touchdown time, the boy asleep on his mother’s shoulder, sucking his thumb. I glanced at the Mom, and our eyes meet for just a second.

Then at 10:32 pm the screen showed Al Chen, a JPL engineer saying, “Touchdown confirmed.” Everyone stood up and applauded while the Mom remained seated with their sleeping son, who woke up a bit and smiled.

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