Heroes lost and found in space
I've never been much for heroes. I tend to see things in shades of gray. But the news of the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing leaves me a little misty-eyed.
That's because of a visit I made with my children some years back to the Neil Armstrong Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio.
It wasn't planned as a pilgrimage. More of an educational expedition, I wanted the kids to get stoked about astronomy, engineering or physics.
But I was wrong. Wapakoneta had a very different lesson to offer.
The museum was 90 minutes from Columbus, a long, straight drive through farm country. On the way, I reflected on how little I knew of the current U.S. space program. What was NASA up to?
Back in the early days of the space program, everybody paid attention. In my elementary school, we watched the coverage of the Apollo moon launches on TV. The countdown, the huge blast of flame and smoke and then the camera following the spacecraft as it dwindled slowly to a point in the sky and was gone. And then the splashdowns, and the heroic astronauts emerging tired and triumphant from the capsules. It was all magical.
But the romance of space travel seemed to disappear. After the Challenger disaster in 1986, schoolchildren no longer were allowed to watch the launches and landings. And in recent years, the story had shifted from one of human courage to technological wizardry. Pictures from a robot on Mars were fascinating - but not heroic.
The Armstrong Museum, though, was in a time warp. There, scientific information of the sort I had been expecting was in short supply, but hero-worship abounded. This was not a place to go to learn about space; rather, it was a monument to the men (and occasional women) who had the skills and the nerve to go there.
I was dubious, but the children got it. They tensed with excitement at a recording of the classic countdown: "Five, four, three, two, one, LIFT OFF!" My son nearly swooned with joy at being in the presence of a "real spacesuit." It was as if he was having a personal encounter with Superman's cape.
My daughter looked over Neil Armstrong's high school yearbook, his early aeronautical maps and flight book and an oil painting of his boyhood home. There were cool replicas of early rockets, but little effort to explain their design. This was about feeding the imagination, not the intellect.
I was nonplussed.
But at the end of our meandering trail through the museum, we were offered a movie - and that's where I succumbed. The chiseled features and noble expressions of Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. The images of a joyful crowd, wiping away tears of relief after learning that the astronauts of Apollo 13 were safe after being forced to abort their mission and drop prematurely into the Pacific. And the space walks! We watched an astronaut float freely in the heavens, equipped with a jet pack but no umbilical connection to his spacecraft. Contemplating the beauty and the bravery of that act, I found myself wiping away tears of my own.
Finally, there was the tinny, staticky recording of Armstrong's famous words, beamed to earth from impossibly far away: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The power of that statement, which had grown threadbare and corny, was restored as I watched the blurry footage with my kids.
To children, people and events are either good or bad. Whether they love superheroes or princesses, they like their heroes perfect: flawless, pure of heart.
As adults, we lose faith that such a thing exists. No matter what courage it takes to become an astronaut, the space exploration enterprise looks expensive and perhaps even unnecessary from an environmentally and socially aware 21st century perspective.
Children, however, still have the ability to imagine something purely honorable and good. And since the things we can imagine sometimes come to be, I found myself that day wishing I had the means to feed and sustain my children's innocent idealism.
The past year, with its historic election of our first black president, has offered some great uplifting moments - and maybe even a hero or two. But there has also been much in the news to foster cynicism. I want my kids to be realists, but I also want them to continue to honor courage, idealism and vision. July 20 was the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landing. Time to think about another visit to Wapakoneta.
Suzanne Goldsmith-Hirsch seeks to balance family field trips with freelance writing and her work at The Bexley Education Foundation. She is the author of the nonfiction book "A City Year" and is currently working on a novel. For more information on her work, go to http://suzanne.goldsmith.hirsch.googlepages.com/home.
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