Nearly 50 years ago the human race set foot on another object in our solar system, setting the stage for human space exploration. In the afternoon of 1969 at 3:17 pm eastern, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the Moon. The 1st step on the lunar surface was about 6 hours later at 9:56 pm eastern. I wouldn’t even be born for several more years, but this single event ended up having a rather profound impact on my life. I grew up dreaming of space. My grandma’s next door neighbor was a professional astronomer, so I got to peer through his enormous telescopes anytime he was out viewing from his driveway. My interest in space continued into high school, where I was encouraged by my science teacher to enter not one but two space design contests. It was the 2nd contest, a team contest, that brought me and my team to Washington D.C in the summer of 1994.
25 years ago I was at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11. To commemorate the event, the Air and Space Museum held a 1st day of issue ceremony for the new US Postal Service stamps (a 29 cent stamp and a $9.95 express mail stamp). After the ceremony the artists behind the design of the stamps were available to sign the the stamps (which were available for sale and stamped as “1st day of issue cancellation” by the Post Office). So I bought the poster of the iconic picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the surface of the Moon, attached several stamps to the poster, had them 1st Day of Issue stamped right there on the poster, and had the stamp designers sign the poster right under the stamps. I have this poster proudly displayed in my home. For me, this is a personal link to one of the most important events in human history, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I didn’t know it know then, but later down the road I would make yet another connection with this historic event. Fast forward about 10 years to when I was working as an Aerospace Engineer in Central Florida. As a fun side job I was also working as a flight coach for a company called Zero Gravity. (Cool fact, I’m not the only GeekDad who has worked for Zero Gravity.) My job with Zero Gravity was to fly in a Boeing 727 aircraft and go “weightless.” The aircraft would fly a parabolic flight path such that when the aircraft was at the top of the parabola the passengers would experienced about 30 seconds of reduced gravity (or, more aptly, microgravity). We would all get to experience various levels of reduced gravity… lunar gravity, Mars gravity, and finally zero gravity or “weightlessness,” as many people call it. My job was to ensure that the passengers remained safe and had a great time during those very short but exhilarating seconds that we were free from the shakles of Earth’s gravity. It was an amazing experience every time I got to do it, but there was one flight that stood out from all the rest.
Not too long after I started doing these flights for the company, I had the honor of working on a flight that included Buzz Aldrin! Buzz was flying with us as part of a special promotion: experience lunar gravity with someone who has actually walked on the Moon. So this was quite an experience for everyone flying that day… including Buzz. You see, this was going to be the 1st time, since Buzz stepped off onto the surface of the Moon in 1969, that he had experienced lunar gravity. Not only did I get the once in a lifetime chance to experience lunar gravity with someone who has actually been there, but Buzz was assigned to my group on the flight. This put me in a rather interesting situation. Part of my job was to talk to my group before and during the flight and explain what they were about to experience. I have to say it was a little intimidating having to explain to my group what to expect when we enter the parabola for lunar gravity when one of the people in my group had actually walked on the Moon!
After working in the space industry now for about 20 years I am still impressed just how much a single event like landing humans on the Moon can bring an entire planet together. A few years ago I was in Australia and I got to chatting with my Uber driver. Turns out he was a chef in Australia back in 1969 and was in charge of cooking for a huge reception for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He got to not only cook for them but meet them both and take a few photos (which of course he had to share with me… after he was safely parked at our destination). Here I was thousands of miles away from home and suddenly I have a personal connection with my Uber driver even though we had totally different career paths and have lived our entire lives on separate continents. Space exploration really does open up the solar system and the universe to us, but it also shows us just how small and precious our own little planet is. Here’s to another 50 years of human exploration!