Down to Earth

Alex Bransky
4 min readAug 5, 2021

As a nine-year-old in Suburban Minneapolis, watching the Challenger explode on the TV in our third-grade classroom was devastating. I’ll always remember Tuesday, January 28, 1986, as the only day I ever watched one of my teachers cry. I was too shocked and confused to follow suit.

Don’t get me wrong, elementary school was a space in which I cried several times, but generally because I had taken a dodgeball to the face or had failed to get every answer correct on the spelling or math test. Yes, I was that ridiculous.

I wasn’t exactly a child prodigy, but I was constantly told by adults how smart I was, and I generally did better than my classmates at most things non-physical. I wasn’t a snob about it, but I definitely had an André-the-Giant-sized level of confidence about how I was going to change the world.

So on that day, I knew what I had to do: I had to create a space shuttle so amazing it would be beyond safe. And to show my certitude in its safety I would be the first to pilot it.

By the time I got to the middle of fourth grade, reality started to set in. I met somebody at my new school who was better than I was at math! And a few people even spelled better than I did, on occasion. But I maintained, in my head, that I was still going to change the world, not only using my brain, but my heart as well.

Do you know what three things a child needs to excel at a science fair? Ingenuity, boldness, and a push. Can you guess how many science fairs I participated in? Zero.

I knew I had a fear of taking chances, especially in front of a crowd. And the push? Nobody ever even suggested that I might want get over my fears and participate. But the ingenuity, well, it would be decades before I realized mine was average at best.

When I started high school I took a career aptitude test, the results of which confirmed my belief that I should become an aerospace engineer. I put up a N.A.S.A. poster on my bedroom wall and had a renewed hunger to design that out-of-this-world rocket ship, or even better, a ship that didn’t need rocket boosters, and could carry me away if I’d had enough of this world. I thought about that a lot when life got hard.

The summer before junior year of high school I went to my cousin Barbara’s wedding on Long Island. I ended up at a table with my cousin Mark and his girlfriend, both of whom had recently graduated from college. They asked me what I wanted to do in college and when I told them aerospace engineering they both spit out their wine at the same time. They had both started on that track at Rensselaer, a fact to which I was completely oblivious, and both had decided it wasn’t for them.

Was I on the wrong path? Yes, probably. That became apparent when I took advanced physics my junior year of high school. It resulted in my only C grade in all of high school, and even that felt lucky given how confused I was most of the year.

That same year I started to get a true understanding of just how badly the world needed to change. I saw the civil wars in Africa, the poverty everywhere, the structural racism nobody around me wanted to see, the hate, the fear. I read about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and I knew I had to do something big, something powerful. So naturally I selected geography as my major when I went to the University of Minnesota, and after failing to get into the nonprofit management Master’s program there I went on to do computer programming for a living.

Now that I’m in my forties, a lot of things have become clearer in the rear-view mirror. I will always be shy and quiet, and remember details from events that happened decades ago but not what someone told me ten seconds ago. I will always be somewhat lazy, and afraid to take risks. I will never be that person who comes up with amazing ideas, like how to build a safe space shuttle. I will never be that person who can guide an entire generation away from hate and towards love and understanding.

What I will be is this: me. And that means a lot to my kids, whom my wife and I adopted out of foster care. And it means a lot to my family and friends, who really care about me. And I will be a good human, that butterfly, the flapping of whose wings could bring a hurricane.

People say I’m down to earth
And down on Earth I’ll stay

For I never built that rocket ship
To carry me away

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