Where Alopecia Takes You

When I had alopecia at first, I didn’t regard it as anything important. Oh cool, I don’t have hair. Yay, no lice. But lately, having alopecia took me to places I never dreamed of before.

On April 23, 2019, I found Kennedy Space Center and Kennedy Space Center found me. High school students from all over the world were invited to take part in the Conrad Challenge, but few got to go to the Innovation Summit as finalists. The Conrad Foundation, led by Nancy Conrad, the widow of Charles “Pete” Conrad, strives to encourage the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in kids 13-18 years old.

The students participating had amazing technologies to bring to the table: one group fielded S.A.F.E (Sound: The Alternative Fire Extinguisher), a portable unit that emitted 60 hertz sound waves to prevent wildfires from spreading. (Here’s what 60 hertz sounds like.) Others made auto-sorting trash cans, phone cases with integrated Epi-Pens, and suits that simulated Earth gravity for astronauts on the Space Station.

I could never match these levels of innovation at my age, and just as well I wasn’t here as a finalist. Nancy Conrad has a mutual friend with Karen Young, the reporter who wrote the article about me for the Ventura Boulevard Magazine here. When Nancy heard about me and my alopecia, she decided to invite me as a VIP guest.

So here I was, the 11-year-old girl with a bag full of peytonpecia business cards and my antique digital camera, feeling out of place on my first day at “The Most Inspiring Place In The Universe”. The first thing you see when you get through the security at Kennedy Space Center is the Heroes and Legends exhibit and Rocket Garden. We all gather under Heroes and Legends, then move to the Atlantis room, where the real Space Shuttle Atlantis is housed, for dinner under the shuttle.

Over the course of four days, we get to see teams do their Power Pitches. There are 6 categories this year: the classic categories, Aerospace & Aviation, Health & Nutrition, Energy & Environment, Cyber-technology & Security, and our sponsors’ categories, Smoke-Free World and Transforming Education Through Technology. There are some amazing inventions pitched to the judging panel, but only one team from each category can claim the title of Conrad Scholar.

During lunch, I conferred with a duo whose project was Protective Eye, a necklace packed with sensors to detect sexual assault attempts, then simultaneously alert the user, the attacker, and the authorities. The brains behind it were high school seniors Dominique and Erica. We came up with a R&D checklist and additional features to enhance safety.

I also was pleasantly surprised. I had come to the Conrad Challenge prepared to give business cards to anyone and everyone I met, and I thought I would be one of the only kids to do so. Turns out, since every kid is the CEO, COO, or founder of something, everybody has a business card. I walked away from the Conrad Challenge with a Rolodex worth of business cards from various Conrad Innovators, as they are officially called. I was also not-so-pleasantly surprised.

The first day, I took amazing photos of Rocket Garden. During dinner, the storage card mysteriously erased itself and deleted all my pictures–and the 200 or so photos of my 3-year-old childhood also stored on the card. I resolved to take better photos, and almost filled up my card.

At the end of the last day, we gathered for dinner and the awards ceremony underneath a real Saturn V rocket. Like all self-respecting tourists, I had brought my camera to the ceremony. We sat with Erica, Dominique, and their engineering elective teacher who happened to be tagging along. Afterwards, while everyone else was dancing under the gargantuan first-stage engines of the massive rocket, I took the chance to wander around the enormous exhibit.

I found a small display case full of space-flown artifacts from the Apollo mission and decided to take some pictures. But wait! I needed to check the storage. It was about 80% full. I went back to the photo-review app, but there was nothing there. Just like the first night, it had auto-deleted. Mom came over and reassured me that the 50 or so pictures she had taken of me were still there. I kept going around the room, telling myself that it was fine, but I couldn’t get around the fact that all my pictures were gone.

Then I found the Treasures Gallery–a hidden room filled with the objects, spacesuits, and a space capsule that all went to the Moon. It just filled me with calm, looking at the checklists, pens, suit concepts, and Apollo 14 command module. There was a corner dedicated to Apollo 13, and I checked that out too. Mom and I went into the Apollo 1 memorial. I forgot all about the pictures and enjoyed the last moments of the amazing week.

So the moral of the story? Alopecia can take you places you’ve never been. All you need to do is embrace it. And make sure you get a better camera than mine once you get to that place. All in all, alopecia is cool. And you might just get to watch people sell other people on extinguishing fires with sound.

P.S. Sorry this post was so long. I just needed to get all that off my shoulders. And seriously, unless you HATE space, you should go to Kennedy Space Center.

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