In the late 1960s, I was in the first years of elementary school in north Alabama. The school system of our city was top-notch; the high school offered advanced placement courses (even courses on anatomy for students who wanted to pursue medicine) and the board of education was always erecting new facilities every few years. Field trips were part and parcel of the curriculum as teachers sought to expand our minds by making our classrooms not confined by the halls of the buildings but designed to include the wider world.
Thus, in 1970, the kids at East Elementary School in Cullman, Alabama, boarded buses and traveled about an hour north to Huntsville to see the newly opened NASA Space Flight Center. As a child of the ’60s, I remember growing up with the marvel of space travel on TV and in the news magazines and newspapers. As a 7 year old, I distinctly remember seeing the live feed from the moon. And, as Armstrong made his “giant leap,” I leapt with him.
NASA’s operations in Huntsville brought the world to north Alabama. Scientists and engineers from across the globe came there and made the city their hometown. It remains one of the state’s most diverse and forward-thinking cities because of this influx of talent and international perspective.
The museum there remains one of my favorites. For the young and impressionable me, to see the massive Saturn V rockets, to interact with some of the artifacts and displays there made me feel great pride in the accomplishments not only of my country but also of my species. As I grew older, one of my regrets is that my family moved from that area before I could go to Space Camp there.
We all have vignettes from our past that stick out to us about an event or a situation that probably should not be in our long-term memories but yet are there, fixed, and often recalled and mused over for the rest of our lives. There is one such strong memory of that day that stands above the others for some reason.
You see, as we excitedly filed off the buses and began to make our way into the large museum facility, the door was held open by a nice older gentleman in a suit who had a neatly combed head of hair. As he did so, the thing that has stuck with me for over fifty years is how he greeted us as we entered.
“Welcome, children,” Wernher von Braun said, smilingly.