Space…Astronomy….and the First Walk on the Moon

29 Jun

Forty five years ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.  Their adventure encourage so many children to dream of going into space as well.  Here is how it impacted my family.

My husband is the space nerd in my life. He watched the original “2001: A Space Odyssey” 21 times when it first came out. He helped start the astronomy club in high school and helped to make a six-inch reflector lens for the school’s telescope.

Eventually he went to CalTech, in Pasadena, CA, to study astrophysics and quantum mechanics. He spent a summer up on Mount Wilson doing research with a large telescope. He loved his time at CalTech. But he realized that there were others much more talented then he in physics, and left CalTech to become a doctor of medicine.

When I met him, he was in medical school. But the quest and the conquest of space was still an important part of his enjoyment. He loved learning about space. On one of our first dates he showed me the constellations. His “Sky and Telescope” magazines have been coming monthly to him for the entire 37 years we have been a couple. And yes, he does watch “The Big Bang Theory” on television each week.

His love of the night skies has influenced many of our vacations. A trip to Hawaii included a tour to the top of Mauna Kea where all the giant telescopes look to the sky. We saw the green flash at twilight and watched as the telescopes opened their eyes for the night, including the twin Keck observatories. We were standing in front of the CalTech Submillimeter Observatory telescope as it opened. My husband gleefully spoke to the students and staff inside. Oh heaven!

We then traveled partway down the volcano to look through much smaller telescopes to view the Milky Way galaxy, as well as constellations like the Seven Sisters and others. They are so much brighter and intense on a clear night on a high mountain in the middle of the ocean. We even saw twin suns, one a blue cooling star.

For a vacation in California, we went to the first ever SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial intelligence) Conference in Santa Clara during August 2010. We joined in the celebration of the 50th anniversary SETI program and honored Frank Drake, who founded SETI, on his 80th birthday.

I have even been on a private tour of MIT so Jay could see its campus and the graft of the apple tree that dropped an apple on Isaac Newton. Yes, the tree exists in a private courtyard at MIT!

To make her Dad happy from the moment she was born, our daughter was born on the 24th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic orbits around the Earth, the day after the MIR Space Station was launched, and during the time in 1986 that Halley’s Comet was in sight. What a daughter!  What a happy Dad! We really thought she would work for NASA one day.

My husband and son watching the start of an eclipse from a cruise ship near Greece.

My husband and son watching the start of an eclipse from a cruise ship near Greece.

Our children have benefited from their Dad’s sky obsessions. We have witness the aurora borealis in Alaska. Watched the Perseid’s meteor shower while lying on the ground at a castle in Hungary. They have traveled with us to stand in the moon’s shadow and experience the eerie silence of a total eclipse of the sun. We journeyed three times so far to the sweet spot where the longest duration of eclipse was to be found: the Caribbean, Hungary and Greece.

While wearing welders’ goggles to protect our eyes, we have reveled at first contact and then “ooohed” at the diamond ring that occurs immediately before totality and the aurora of the sun. We marveled that each aurora is slightly different. And enjoy those few minutes of staring straight at the sun during totality without worrying about eye damage.

Total Eclipse of the Sun 1998.

Total Eclipse of the Sun 1998.

With a six-inch reflecting telescope in our garage, our children experienced seeing the different planets and space elements up close. Our neighbors have, at times, turned off all their outside lights for a viewing party. We have watched lunar eclipses and meteor showers from our front yard. We stood outside our home with binoculars to see the comet Hale-Bopp streak by…even though it was not that great, to be honest.. and watched the transit of Venus from our back deck. Our son took an astronomy class in both high school and college so he could learn more about the sky.

My children and husband watching the transit of Venus across the sun through shadows.  My daughter has her welder's goggles on for when she actually looks at the sun.

My children and husband watching the transit of Venus across the sun through shadows. My daughter has her welder’s goggles on for when she actually looks at the sun.

As a 40th birthday gift, I sent my husband to Adult Space Camp in Huntsville, where he envisioned what life for him would have been if he did not have a heart murmur and could have been a doctor/astronaut. He bought an official NASA blue jumpsuit, which he wore for many years on Halloween to the children’s hospital where he works.

Both my children have attended parent/child space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, with their Dad. And my daughter attended four additional years of Space Camp: two years in Hutchinson, Kansas, at the Cosmosphere, where we have been members for over 20 years; and two years at Huntsville.   At Space Camp she got to meet Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, and have him autograph a book! We have all read books by John Glenn, Homer Hickman, and others who worked in the space program.

Originally she wanted to be an astronaut, but while in high school, at space camp in Huntsville, she changed her mind. “An astronaut came to talk to us,” she told me.  “He said that he was part of the ‘penguin’ group, the group of astronauts who will never fly.” WIth this information, my daughter decided it was not practical to plan on being an astronaut.

Through all this, I remain an interested accomplice because I also have a profound interest in space. Mine does not date to the movies or to my studies, but rather to July 20, 1969, when the “eagle” landed on the moon.

The anticipation had been increasing for over a week as Apollo 11 raced through space. At the bungalows that is all we could speak about as the spaceship reached each hurdle and passed on to the next step in its voyage. Would the rocket take off safely? Would they reach orbit around the moon? Would the landing ship detach correctly? Would they actually land on the moon?

In those days, 45 years ago, we did not have good television reception in the Catskills. In fact, the summer was ‘no television’ time. Most people did not even have a television in their bungalows.

But my grandparents had a year-round house with television reception. And a special exception was made for the moon landing. We were allowed to stay up so late that night. Many of us squished into a small space, sitting together on the floor, chairs, and couch, others standing as we watched the grainy black and white television.

Reception was going in and out, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. We stayed awake as Armstrong became the first man to walk on another surface besides Earth. We were mesmerized by the events. The adults were silent until both Armstrong and Aldrin were safely walking on the surface of the moon. Then there was cheering and a feeling of such excitement.

It was the event of the summer…till then. (Less than a month later, another closer event would also change our world: Woodstock.)

We were elated, exhausted, and extremely proud of what the United States did that night. Apollo 11’s crew members were our heroes.   What a night!

Then came the next round of anticipation. Would they be able to take off from the moon? Would they be able to connect with the orbiting Apollo 11 ship? Would they reach home? YES! They did!

During those July weeks, my interest in space and the night skies became forever part of my life. Now each time I travel with my husband to another planetarium (he wants to go to every one in the USA); or another space museum; or another eclipse; I feel that excitement bubble up. I am 14 again, watching the first men walk on the moon. We might have come to our love of space from separate places, but we share the excitement that the sky offers each and every night.

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