By Jennifer King
On Aug. 21, 2017, Alicia Edds woke with her heart pounding.
For years, the 18-year-old from Oldham County had anticipated this day, but now that it was finally here, she was worried it wouldn’t live up to her expectations.
Nevertheless, she donned her favorite shirt with the little rockets and stars, pinned her hair up into two silvery space buns, sprinkled glittery stars on her face then headed to South Union Shaker Village with the rest of her peers from the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science.
After a decade of waiting, Alicia was about to see a total solar eclipse.
From a young age, Alicia has had what she describes as an obsession with space. As a kid, she would sit outside on her father’s hip and look at the moon, listening to the crickets chirping in the distance. She remembers visiting a property her best friend’s family owned, laying on top of the family car, just staring up at the stars for hours on end.
“I remember feeling so infinitesimally small but at the same time incredibly big and miraculous all at once,” Alicia said. “That’s what instilled in me almost an addiction, and it’s been there since.”
In third grade, Alicia visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The numerous exhibits on stars, visits to space and experiments in zero gravity blew her mind, but the display that left Alicia in awe was a giant poster promoting Space Camp.
The poster of the girl floating in a nebula captivated Alicia so much that she made her mother write down her address on a postcard so the camp would send her more information.
Her mother, Melissa Edds, said Alicia’s enthusiasm was evident, but Alicia was too young to attend that year. The next year, as a 9-year-old in fourth grade, Alicia qualified. Her mom was worried about sending her daughter so far away from the family home in LaGrange, Kentucky, to the camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Alicia had always been mature for her age, Melissa said, but she had never ventured outside of the state for camp before.
Despite her concerns, Melissa helped Alicia prepare to leave for camp when the time came.
“I knew nothing was going to stop this kid from going,” she said.
That summer, the family packed up the car and drove Alicia down to Huntsville for her first week at Space Camp. They took pictures around the space center premises and helped Alicia set up her bed in the student dorms before saying their goodbyes and leaving her there for a week.
“It was tempting to stay in Huntsville,” Melissa said. “There were plenty of other families that were.”
For her mother, leaving Alicia at camp was a leap of faith. For her father, Nathan Edds, it seemed like a natural thing to do.
“Neither one of us pushed her to do that,” he said of Alicia’s decision to attend space camp.
Alicia had made up her mind and Nathan supported her decision. The distance to the camp didn’t bother him; he knew she would be well looked after.
At camp, Alicia participated in mock missions in mission control, the international space station and a shuttle launch. She and her peers made miniature moon stations, moon colonies and Mars colonies. While there, they took classes, attended lectures and designed mission patches. They played games like “Space Bowl,” or “jeopardy for space nerds,” as Alicia dubbed it.
“It was like a duck taking to water,” Melissa said. “We never got a phone call, she was having so much fun.”
From fourth grade on, Alicia participated in Space Camp every summer. In seventh grade, she won the “Right Stuff” Award, which is presented to the space camp student who exhibits all of the qualities to be successful within the fields of aerospace and aeronautics. One of her idols, astronaut Robert
Lee “Hoot” Gibson presented her with the copper medal, which Alicia hung in her bedroom at her parents’ house.
“It’s one of my most prized possessions,” Edds said.
Various other space-related memorabilia are scattered around Alicia’s childhood room. A miniature version of the poster that first drew her to space camp hangs by her bookshelf. She keeps her telescope tucked in a corner by her dresser. In her bedside table is a box full of mission patches, letters from her family and pictures from every year of Space Camp. Every year, her parents take a photo of Alicia standing by the entrance of space camp, under a sign that reads: “Through these doors enter the world’s future astronauts, scientists and engineers.”
On a sunny September day, Edds sat in a back room at Ink Well Tattoo in LaGrange, scrolling through her phone as the whir of a tattoo gun drowned out the scratchy rock music playing over a black radio tucked away in the corner of the room.
In another corner Alicia’s father sat in a metal swivel chair, watching the tattoo artist, Fred Fields, trace thin lines of ink on Alicia’s arm, while her mother walked up and down the dark, narrow hallway just outside the room, looking at various pieces of artwork hanging there.
When she was in middle school, Alicia found a copy of “The Little Prince” in a used bookstore. The gold cover caught her eye, but it was the book’s message that kept her attention.
“It was the perfect summary of my philosophy as a human being and just how I feel about life and living,” she said.
One particular scene inspired her above all others. In the book, the narrator draws a picture of a snake eating an elephant, but to all the grown-ups, the drawing looks like a hat.
“The entire book is about remaining a child forever and always thinking the way a child thinks, never letting your innocence and your constant curiosity die,” she said.
The image of the snake eating the elephant, along with the little prince and a circle of tiny planets and stars now has a permanent place on Alicia’s left bicep.
“That’s a reminder for me to live with curiosity and imagination and to be able to never grow up,” she said.
Alicia’s constant curiosity and independent spirit was something her parents always encouraged.
“Alicia is one of the bravest kids I know,” Melissa said.
In her fourth and fifth grade year, Alicia wore a poodle skirt at least once a week. In middle school, she was one of the first kids to dye her hair.
“I admired her so much because she wasn’t afraid of anything,” Melissa said.
Nathan said he and Melissa raised Alicia and her sister, Nikki, to think for themselves and be independent.
“They make up their own minds about what they want to do,” he said.
Alicia’s parents met in a family practice medical office in West Virginia, where Melissa worked as a physician assistant. Nathan had been ill for several weeks before his father finally convinced him to go to a clinic. Melissa, who had just moved from Texas and was new to the practice, happened to be assigned to oversee Nathan’s appointment that day.
“It took about five different phone calls, but I finally convinced her to go on a date with me,” Nathan said.
They dated for a year and a half before getting married, the second time for both. Neither had children from their previous marriages, but they welcomed their first child, Alicia, a year and a half after getting married. Their second daughter, Nikki, came a year and a half after that.
Nathan’s job in railroad signaling required the family to move frequently to be closer to projects the company needed him to work on. The family eventually settled in LaGrange.
Although he was closer to the company headquarters, Nathan was still required to travel most of the week for his job. The constant travel put a strain on the family.
“There were times I would drive through the night,” Nathan said. “I would do whatever I needed to get back.”
While Nathan was on the road, Melissa was at home with the girls.
“He traveled enough that there was a point where it was easier to deal with things when he wasn’t home,” she said.
As Alicia got older, the strained nature of her parents’ marriage became more apparent to her.
In middle school, Alicia began experiencing panic attacks, heightened anxiety and episodes of dissociating and blacking out. Concerned, her parents helped Alicia look for a counselor.
“Alicia is not one to open up to me and Missy,” Nathan said. “She holds everything to her heart.”
In addition to counseling, Alicia found a lot of comfort through music. She started playing the trumpet when she was in sixth grade and continued through high school.
Alicia recalls one day in middle school band rehearsal when she started having a panic attack. Normally she would have found somewhere safe to go until the attack subsided, but in that moment, she didn’t know where to go. Without any warning, the band director cued everyone to start playing. Not sure what else to do, Edds began to play her trumpet along with the band.
“I started playing and immediately I felt better,” she said. “I felt centered, I felt in control of myself. There was something else to focus on besides how I was feeling.”
Alicia concentrated on the sound and on the notes, instead of her panic and discovered a way to break free of her anxieties. Since then, she has sought out music as a source of relief and escape.
Nathan also sought counseling, and he and Melissa continued to work on their relationship. For them, faith played a large role in helping to heal and grow.
“The good Lord won’t give us any more than what we can stand,” Nathan said. “He will take care of us. He has the ultimate plan.”
In her sophomore year at Oldham County High School, Alicia applied to attend the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Bowling Green. The public academy, located on the campus of Western Kentucky University, also functions as an early college entrance program. During their junior and senior years of high school, students accumulate over 60 hours of college credit by attending college courses focusing on math and science. Students also have the opportunity to conduct and publish research. Attending the academy afforded Alicia unique opportunities both academically and emotionally.
“It was kind of to get away from my parents and the whole family situation,” she said. “At that point, I had kind of felt like for the past couple of years, I had been parenting myself.”
Her parents recognized that, in many ways, the academy was a better environment for Alicia than home had become.
“A lot of people said ‘Why Gatton?’ but nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors,” Melissa said.
As for the responsibility she would have to take on as a high school student attending college, Alicia felt she was up for the challenge.
“I felt like I was already functioning on my own, so college wouldn’t be that big of a step up academically or as a person,” she said.
Although the decision to apply was easy for Alicia, choosing whether or not to go proved much more difficult. The strong friendships she had and good support system she cultivated through band at Oldham County High School made it difficult to leave, but ultimately she decided to attend the academy, starting in the fall semester of 2016.
“The sacrifice has been worth it with all of the opportunity I have had,” she said.
Through the Gatton Academy, where Alicia is now a senior, she has had multiple research opportunities and has continued to be involved with music through programs at Western Kentucky University. She acknowledges that while there are days where it is really hard and stressful, especially being a high school student, she has developed both academically and socially.
“I’ve just done so many incredible things through Gatton,” she said.
Her parents also recognize the benefits Alicia has had from being at Gatton.
“We never wondered if we made the right decision by letting her go,” Melissa said.
The reality of what she was about to witness set in for Alicia when she got her eclipse glasses.
She watched as bit by bit of the sun disappeared behind the dark disk of the moon until there was nothing left but a sliver of light.
“I look up at the sky and all of a sudden what I’ve been looking forward to for as long as I can remember is happening,” she said, recounting the experience. “The corona of the sun is just stretching out like the wings of a butterfly. It’s like an angel is just sitting there looking upon the earth, and it was completely and utterly breathtaking. All I remember was just crying because it was the most beautiful thing I had seen in my entire life.”
For two minutes and 10 seconds, Alicia stared at the glowing halo of light surrounding the moon and the 360-degree sunset surrounding her.
“It took all of me to be able to keep standing and looking at it,” she said.
When the sun began to peek back out from behind the moon, Alicia had one thought: she needed to see it again.
“It makes me feel alive and wonderful and just like I was meant to be here to see these eclipses and see all of these things that make you feel like a human,” she said.
In an ideal world, Alicia would like to find a way to combine all of her passions.
In May, she will graduate from the Gatton Academy and Oldham County High School. After graduation, she will head to college, although she is not sure where yet.
“God has worked some amazingly cool things through this kid,” Melissa said.
Although her plans after graduation are not yet set in stone, Alicia’s parents are confident that their daughter’s next steps will be the right ones.
“At the end of the day, everything we do is the good Lord’s plan,” Nathan said.
Alicia said she would love to get an internship with another one of her idols, Dr. Lauren Merkle, in the Biomedical Research and Environmental Sciences Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She wants to study the effects of zero gravity or Martian gravity, the Martian environment, and the moon environment on the human body.
The vastness of space and the endless possibilities of the universe excite Alicia.
“It is my dream to work at NASA,” she said. “It is my dream to leave this planet and finally be able to touch the stars.”