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Emily LakdawallaJuly 10, 2012

A blog that started out as a product review, but turned into something else entirely

When the kids and I went to the Griffith Observatory to watch the transit of Venus, we spent some mid-transit time exploring the galleries. Inevitably, we went into the gift shop. (OK, I'll be honest: I'm usually the one leading the charge into the gift shop at museums.) Both of my girls, but especially the younger one, Sanaya, expressed interest in the orange NASA-logo flight suits. They were a bit pricey, and it's difficult to tell whether costumes are any good without opening the package, so I didn't buy them at the time.

Well, ever since then, Sanaya has occasionally asked me for a "space baymee suit." Now, being her mother, I know that "baymee suit" means "bathing suit," and I was trying to imagine what a space bathing suit might look like. Stars and planets? I tried to ask her what she meant, but any of you who have preschoolers know that if you ask a three-year-old for clarification, they'll just repeat what they said before, verbatim, with increasing irritation. They don't understand why you don't understand them, since the meaning is perfectly clear to them. Finally, though, she mentioned the word "orange." It was her older sister Anahita who finally figured out what she was talking about: the orange suits in the science museum gift shop. She had somehow conflated "flight suit" with "bathing suit." So of course I went straight to Amazon and ordered them.

(Don't worry, Griffith Observatory's gift shop may have missed this sale but they have gotten plenty of my money in the past.)

I gave the girls the flight suits last week and they were an instant hit. It was impossible to get both girls to stand still at the same time to get their photos.


I agree with other parents' reviews on Amazon: these are not cheap (list price is $50, but the Amazon price is $35), but you definitely get quality for the price. I find that most kids' costumes are unbelievably flimsy, made to last through one Halloween and that's it. These are different.  They're made of good quality but lightweight fabric, every seam double-stitched. Another problem I have with most costumes is that they seem to be made for, ahem, "fluffy" kids. On the advice of the Amazon reviewers I bought the 4-6-year-old size for Sanaya (she turned 3 in April) and the 6-8-year-old size for Anahita (who will turn 6 in August). There's plenty of extra length in the ones I bought -- at least 4 inches for each kid, maybe more --  but they have a broad elastic band at the wrists, Velcro closures at the ankles, and, most importantly, a one-inch-wide black elastic belt with a strong closure that cinches any extra fabric up at the waist, gathering extra length and making the whole thing fit very well on both my very skinny five-year-old and my more fluffy toddler, while allowing lots of room for growth.

No sooner had they put on the suits than they decided to go outside. We have a very small backyard, too small for the jungle gym with treehouse and slide and swings that I really wanted to get for the kids. So I was very happy last Christmas when Santa brought the girls this airplane teeter-totter, which is fun to climb and play on and also can easily be moved around the yard by one person in order to keep the lawn tidy. Of course, the instant I saw my girls walk out there in their flight suits, the airplane metamorphosed in my mind into a T-38. Anahita had to perform her preflight checkout (that is, she had to wipe off the water left overnight by the sprinklers):


And then there followed a one-hour period in which the girls had to "pack" for their flight, loading the belly of their rocket ship with cargo. Finally, though I got them to pose for a photo in the plane:


If you're a regular reader you'll know that I'm not exactly the most informed about human spaceflight; I have tunnel vision on the robotic stuff. So to prepare to write this product review I did some Google searching in order to understand what these suits were supposed to be. I learned it was an Advanced Crew Escape Suit, worn during the liftoff and landing portions of Shuttle flights. Then I came across a cool photo of a south Asian woman in such a suit. I thought: that is so awesome, I have to show Anahita. (My husband was born in Sri Lanka, his family mostly in Mumbai, so while I'm Indian only in surname, my girls have feet on both continents.) The astronaut's name -- Kalpana Chawla -- rang a bell; I knew there was something special about her, apart from being the first Indian woman in space, but couldn't remember what. I clicked on the Wikipedia link for her name.



Most of you reading this are very likely quicker on the uptake than I. Kalpana Chawla was one of the seven astronauts who died in the fiery breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003.

I regularly get misty-eyed about space exploration events. But I can't recall actually crying about anything before. The juxtaposition of those scenes with my girls, and those photos of Chawla -- there were tears. I spent a minute or two looking at her picture, and then I had to get up from my computer and go read a book to my daughters.

It is absolutely impossible for me to imagine what it would have been like to be this woman's mother in the aftermath of that disaster. I'm an imaginative person, but that is beyond my capability, or maybe beyond my desire, to imagine. But, looking at that photo, and the one below, there is one thing that I can imagine. It's possible to feel a lot of things at once. No matter what the circumstance, no matter how else I felt, I feel pretty sure that I would be very, very proud of the daughter in these pictures, in her evident determination, intelligence, success, strength, passion, and joy in her chosen profession. I may have wished that she'd chosen something safer to do. I may have been unable to accept what had happened. But I would still have been proud of her.

So: I printed out the picture above, and the one below, and gave them to Anahita. I told her the astronaut's name, but didn't tell her anything else. Anahita liked the pictures a lot, but was very concerned about the fact that in the portrait below, the blue patch with yellow wings very clearly had Chawla's name embroidered on it, while Anahita's suit only had the word "COMMANDER" stitched there. I told Anahita that I would stitch her a patch with her name on it. It occurred to me that these suits finally give me a place to use those patches that I always get from space missions. From now on, any patch I get from any mission, I'll sew onto the back of my kids' flight suits. So, to any of you who give me mission patch freebies: you'd better give me two of each.


Read more: product review, human spaceflight, astronaut

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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