An Apollo 11 Personal Story

 Posted by DrJeff on July 16th, 2009

 Copyright 2009  |  About this blog



This post is a Teachable Moment in the News.

Photo caption: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Photo by Neil Armstrong.


I think it was August 1998. I got a call from Gina Ross, the principal of Buzz Aldrin Elementary School in Reston, VA. Her teachers were about to return to school for the new academic year, and before the kids returned she wanted me to come and visit. My mission? To inspire her teaching staff with an inter-disciplinary talk on the nature of human exploration, what we as a species of explorers are capable of achieving when we put our minds to it, and that teachers and parents are the link that binds each generation to the next, allowing us personally and collectively to aspire to new heights.


The presentation was going well. They were with me, and I could see them getting energized for the new year. Midway through, I was telling them about how I was inspired to be a space explorer when I was just 11. It was one of those singular moments that changes us forever. I was watching a black and white television and on the screen were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking around … on the Moon! You just have to step back from that sentence and let it soak in.


I showed them that incredible photograph (I used it on a recent post) taken by Michael Collins through Columbia’s window as Armstrong and Aldrin were returning from the surface in the lunar module Eagle. With my voice cracking a bit, I said this was an emotionally powerful image for me because—I was in it. There, above the lunar horizon, was a tiny blue Earth, hanging motionless against the black void of space. On that world was me looking back at the astronauts a quarter of a million miles away. It was actually a pretty emotional moment for everyone in the room. Many of us had lived through that shared experience back in 1969.


Then something happened as if on cue. I heard the door open ever so gently so as not to disturb, and … Buzz Aldrin walked in. Gina Ross had invited him to his namesake school, but apparently forgot to tell anyone. We were all stunned. That powerful photo was still on the screen, and I was having a bit of trouble getting back into the story. So someone in the audience broke the silence and said “hey, that’s me and Neil coming back to Mike!” It was just … surreal. Here is this incredibly historic photo capturing the most monumental achievement in human history, and to someone in the room it was personal to the point of it being the subject of a casual, even ordinary comment. It was like leafing through your family photoalbum and stopping to tell the cute story behind a particular photo. I guess the lesson is that these moments that change us all are accomplished by ordinary people like you and me. But he was my hero. He was once 240,000 miles away from me.


I got back into my talk, managing to build to an emotional conclusion—that continuing the legacy of human exploration rested squarely in the hands of teachers and parents. I took some questions and collected my things. I walked out into the hall and there, making a quick beeline right for me, was Buzz Aldrin. He smiled broadly and gave me one of those two-handed handshakes. The he said “Jeff!” (HE CALLED ME JEFF!) “That was really inspiring, where did it come from?”


I … just couldn’t think. I didn’t know what to say. I remember swallowing against a lump in my throat, and I heard myself saying “it came from you.”


To this day, I think back on what I said and know with every fiber of my being that it was the perfect answer. It came from my heart. It gave perfect voice to what I felt, for isn’t that what it’s all about? Every generation inspiring the next so our children can take us where none have gone before?


I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life. It was my ‘Kodak moment’. Thanks Gina.





If you’d like to continue this journey with me, here are some other things you might want to read:


More on My Memories of Apollo 11


On The Nature of Our Existence


On Teaching


On Heroes


On my sense of Exploration, Science, and Education



Photo Credit: Neil Armstrong and NASA


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