“Eagles,” he said, which is what Andres has always called me, as he put his arm around me a bit awkwardly on odorous DC Metra heading towards the National Zoo, “I feel like I can be completely me without apology when I’m with you.”
It was a sweet moment that would have probably led me to a bout of tears if it weren’t for the louds snores of the blanket wrapped woman sitting in the aisle next to us. They had suddenly grown so loud they stifled out any response I might have given him.
Andres Almeida is one of a kind. He is full of puns and an astounding number of facts about space and his heart is as vast as the universe. We met because of Twitter and our shared love for NASA and astronomy. We sat down to talk at a little creek that flowed next to the National Zoo and as he positioned himself on a log, I asked him what projects he was working on. He was working at NASA’s History Office at headquarters in Washington doing Public Outreach on a project to make books more accessible to the public via the web. “That’s a cool thing. I think it promotes space history culture. That means a lot to me because I grew up loving space and loving the people behind it. I mean these people who build a spacecraft, who go to the moon, who go to earth’s orbit are doing something a lot bigger than themselves. They’re helping humanity. Even if they don’t realize it, there are people who benefit from the research they do in space. Being able to help in that way and get that message out -- that’s a good project that I’m enjoying.”
I knew there were other things he was also working on and I asked after them. “If you see me walking around,” he said, “you’ll notice I’m humming. One thing I’m trying to do is begin writing music again. I just haven’t put myself into that mindset again, but I love music. I love it. But I have to get back into it again.”
I thought of the previous evening. I had curled up on the couch of the cozy apartment he and his partner Kevin shared while he had serenaded me with Latin ballads and love songs. “What would it look like for you to do that?” I asked.
“Right now I’m focusing on getting the important things out of the way, like finishing school,”
he responded. Then he told me the story of being in his family business in Florida. He had been close to finishing his degree but never quite concluded it. When he came to DC, he realized he needed to finish it up. “Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve had to sacrifice some things...I was in the National Philharmonic Chorus for a half a season but I had to take classes and music, like I said, is really important to me, having to cut that was hard but finishing school up will give me more time to do things that I enjoy. To pursue it. I feel like I am pursuing it by finishing my degree. I could easily say, “I don’t need my degree. I’m doing this or that,” but you know what I want...my degree. Even if it’s an unconventional way of getting it. Even if it takes me longer. That’s actually something that’s bothered me about myself that I’ve had to overcome. I go through with things in unconventional ways. I interned when I was twenty-seven/twenty-eight. A lot of people think that they can’t do that. That it’s too old, but that’s not true. You can do it. I think you can do whatever you want and whatever age as long as you’re good at it and you like and enjoy it.”
At this point, he had warmed to his subject and was moving his arms about as he spoke passionately.
“You know, I love space history and exploration. I knew since I was a little kid that I wanted to go into space, but I never took the right math classes because I didn’t have that voice -- I had support -- but I didn’t have that repetitive voice and I didn’t heed other voices that said, “You’re good at this. You should continue going for math and science. You should pursue astronomy.” I never did that because I didn’t want to be the nerdy kid and I would hate for people to fall into that. Something hit me and I realized I needed to go after what I really loved and that’s why I applied to be an intern at NASA. I said “forget it, it’s now or never.” I applied and I did not expect to get chosen, but I was. I was one of the interns for Fall 2013. I was the oldest one in that group but it didn’t matter. Everyone was supportive and helped each other out and understood where each other came from. That’s what I really enjoy about the space community. Everyone has such different backgrounds but it doesn’t matter. One of my best friends, we don’t agree on anything politically but we share that common love, for space, even though we’re diametrically opposite.”
I asked him if from his internship he was able to parlay it into an opportunity with NASA History.
“Yeah,” he replied “someone had seen the way I tweet and thought it was good enough to help in the history office. And you know what, I don’t know why I just said that right now, I need to get over that.”
“You do!” I wanted him to see his abilities as much as I did.
“Because I’m me. I’m not just some guy. I am. I am some guy. I have something --”
I interrupted him, “You have a gift.”
“I don’t know if I have a gift,” he said, “But I have something--”
I interrupted him again, “You do have a gift. You’re very good at what you do and people recognize that. I think the thing that we’re taught at a young age is “don’t say you’re smart. Don’t say you’re pretty. Don’t say you’re...whatever.” We don’t want people to think we’re arrogant. I think there is difference between confidence and arrogance. But recognizing your gifts...recognizing you’re gifted at something doesn’t make you arrogant, because to say, “this is a natural gift that I have” is saying it’s not something I am just awesome at because I did this myself. It’s saying, “it’s something that just naturally comes to me.”
He was shaking his head in agreement,“Yes. I’m learning to stop belittling myself. That’s part of my journey to get to where I want to be. I want to do music and I want to continue to do good work in my career but if I keep asking myself that, “why me?” then I won’t get too far.”
“Do you feel like the NASA community is helping you evolve in that way?” I wondered aloud.
“Yeah.” He nodded his head in affirmation, “A lot of people experience similar things and experience similar emotions and have their own voices in their heads and just put that out on social media. Reading other people and seeing other people’s thoughts helps me analyze and think, “wow, that’s the way I think.” And that looks kind of silly. I tell people, “don’t think that about yourself,” but then I do the same thing. But reading that and seeing that and talking to people firsthand is helpful in overcoming your own obstacles. I told you earlier, verbalizing what you’re going to do throughout the day and verbalizing the things you must overcome, it’s different than just reading it or thinking it. Verbalizing it gives you new perspective. The NASA community has shown me, aside from being welcoming, there’s a lot to learn from one another. Everyone has had something to offer. Whether it has been someone you don’t agree with or someone who is wonderful, you learn about yourself through that person.”
Our conversation continued on for quite sometime and covered a myriad of things. It ended with him standing to his feet and singing a song at the top of his lungs, arms spread wide while I videoed the magnificence of the moment. It was glorious. I couldn’t help but think that it would be wonderful if he was completely him all the time with everyone. I think that’s part of his mission and dream is to give people the courage to help them be comfortable with being completely them regardless of who they’re standing in front of. It’s been a joy to see him step into this place on his own journey. Andres, Siriusly, you're the brightest star.