When my kids were ready for chapter books, Mary Pope Osborne whisked them away on marvelous adventures through her Magic Tree House books. The curious brother-sister duo, Jack and Annie, pulled my children into pre-historic times to ride atop dinosaurs and into King Arthur’s castle decorated for Christmas. Reading was never more fun and imagination ruled the day.
This beautifully illustrated book by Michael G. Neece brilliantly captures a chapter in the history of the Morehead Planetarium. But it does so much more–it’s a story of commitment, courage, learning and the imagination. The bonds formed between museum director Tony Jenzano, Morehead Planetarium, and an amazing roster of famous astronauts were profound and lasting, and played a major role in sending the first Americans into space.
Within my busy life, I explore the Morehead Planetarium astronaut training program story for a few minutes at a time, scattering an hour of time across a day. When I carve more insistently, I get a few hours in a row. But on Friday, I got a whole day to savor my research.
Thus, instead of hanging photographs in an exhibit, I found and scanned newspaper stories, NASA contracts, and vintage photographs of astronauts and their trainers. The vault at Morehead has multiple levels of security, so getting the right timing and permissions for two hours was an amazing treat. My next stop was the Chapel Hill Historical Society where I sifted through 30 years of history.
I have confirmation of Mercury astronauts eating out while in Chapel Hill, a quote for the local paper from a yet-to-launch Neil Armstrong, and hints about the true reasons for Morehead having a part in the American space program. My favorite finds of the day? Tony and Myrtle Jenzano directed the Red Cross fundraising in Chapel Hill in the early 1960’s and Tony taught local Boy Scouts astronomy in the planetarium star theater.
What were the new puzzles solved? How many yearly contracts Morehead had, who signed them, and what fees were paid. I have new-to-me photographs of astronauts, newspaper write-ups of Morehead Director Tony Jenzano’s community work and social life, and even some humorous statements made by kids at Morehead Planetarium over fifty years ago that were captured in a catch-all column in the weekly paper. One of many: a lad, walking out of a planetarium program about the Sun, said to a friend, “It’s no wonder that sunlight can travel 186,000 miles per second. It’s downhill all the way!”
When I find these nuggets of wisdom and humor from the past, it makes me feel my research is picking up speed. It’s definitely feeling easier, like it’s downhill all the way for me, too.
This year, I did the most patriotic thing I have ever done to celebrate Independence Day: I went to Spacefest.
Independence Day usually means a backyard party with my wife, kids, and as many friends and family as are in town, a party where we all eat way too much barbecue and pie. We pass around a copy of the Declaration of Independence and read sections of it aloud. Sometimes we find trivia about famous Americans and test each other. I’ve always thought our traditions have honored the day, and I still do.
This year, however, I needed to fly to Tucson, Arizona really early on Independence Day if I wanted to settle in before my first-ever Spacefest. I planned and saved and looked forward to this gathering of space-lovers, including astronauts, artists, science writers and journalists, sci-fi authors, filmmakers, and fans of space travel and astronomy. I knew I needed to attend and each year that I wait just meant I’d miss out on more fun, so I made it happen.
As I explored the luxury resort after checking into my room, I turned a corner and looked down a long hallway. Emily Carney, the Space Hipster, and I instantly recognized each other and she greeted me with the warmth of an old friend. Online, she is edgy, witty, and deeply brilliant. In person, she’s all of that plus thoroughly charming. I could have asked for no better welcome.
But space lovers love welcoming one of their own. Jamie, Paulette, Martin, Kelly, and John were enthusiastic celebrants I encountered that first night at Spacefest. They drew me into a large circle of fellow space-lovers seated outside in the warm night air. We toasted the night and each other with tequila, but it may as well have been ambrosia or Vulcan brandy.
The next day, after I’d ordered my birthday lunch alone, Paulette and Martin spotted me and quickly joined, not realizing that the gift of their company made my special day truly so. Fast friends made, well…fast!
Once festivities were underway on July fifth, I went to several book signings. I met Jay Gallentine, a gifted author who weaves exciting stories of humanity’s first space ventures from exquisite fibers of exhaustively-researched details. During a talk on gravity assist mathematics and the concept for the Voyager program, Jay was engaging, humorous, exciting, humble, and left me wishing he could talk for another few hours. He, Rod Pyle, and Francis French each spoke with me about the craft of writing, giving insights and offering camaraderie and support during signings, in hallways, and during cocktail hours.
Lucy West, whose space art supercharges the imagination, gave me a tour of her artwork and some invaluable advice for one of my own artists at home who needed encouragement. Lucy’s work left me feeling like I had visited other worlds and her compassion for my daughter-artist, whom she’d never met, made me feel I’d just gained a trusted friend.
I shook the hand of astronaut Fred Haise who could easily have died on Apollo 13 (but clearly didn’t). He mentioned he felt lucky for his additional time here on earth. From what I could tell after the encounter though, all of us mere mortals who meet him are really the lucky ones. No matter the path he carved out while I saw him at Spacefest, he left smiles in his wake. Everywhere.
You might object–“This is all cool and interesting, but isn’t reading our founding documents or watching movies about veterans who fought for our freedom more patriotic than Spacefest?”
I won’t argue those points. But…
Spacefest represents what we can be proud of as Americans.
Spacefest is our past. Legends still walk among us, helping us recall a time when hundreds of thousands of people were peacefully employed, accomplishing monumental, history-changing goals that no other humans had ever achieved before. They helped put humans on the moon, or they themselves went. They constructed and launched orbiting science platforms to gain understanding of how we can live in space, paving the way for longer voyages for humanity. They created reusable spacecraft that allowed for deployment of all kinds of “eyes and ears” on the universe (and so, so much more). They sewed the fabric that made space walks, moon walks, and spacecraft reentry possible.
Spacefest is our present. Science educators, speakers, authors, and STEM practitioners from across the globe flock to Spacefest to discuss humanity’s ongoing efforts to better understand who we are, what we are, why we are here, and how to find out even more. How do we know what we know? How can we learn even more? These women, men, and youngsters can tell you.
Spacefest is our future. Far more nourishing for our national psyche, and our human psyche, is Spacefest’s gathering of visionaries. Artists and speculative fiction writers gather with us and share glimpses of where we can go and what we can be. They are the ones who let us leap farther and voyage deeper into our best futures with clarity, humor, and warmth. Mission controllers, astronauts, fabric and equipment designers, authors, and space fans enjoy talking about the past, but are usually even more excited to discuss how to build the future.
That we yearn for something beyond petty squabbling and beyond drawing borders should make us proud to be Americans, but it goes far beyond patriotism. It should make us grateful to be part of the human race.
Spacefest doesn’t just give us a view of humanity’s bright future. It propels us toward it. Spacefest is designed to encourage attendees to break down barriers between past accomplishments and future endeavours, between the arts and the sciences, between imagining and doing, and then marry these seeming opposites together to give wings to our yearning.
If Spacefest taught me any one thing, it is this:
What we will become hinges on our ability to cultivate a conversation among those who created our past triumphs and the visionaries who are creating our future.
Spacefest hosts that ongoing conversation. This year, I’m glad I joined in.