Like other American children, I gathered with my family around the TV set on July 20, 1969, as we huddled close to watch Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the moon. It was the summer after my second-grade year, and we had traveled from our home in Houston to Austin, Texas for a visit with my older brother and his wife. I remember the scratchy feel of the thick shag carpet on my bare legs; I can picture my daddy sitting on a footstool, leaning forward in focused anticipation. I remember the grainy images of men in cumbersome suits and the sounds of beeps and static. But most of all, I remember watching the screen with anxious intensity.
Usually, “space stuff” was old hat to me. My father, “Doc Downs,” was a NASA scientist, a “Technical Assistant for Advanced Systems.” To me, NASA meant the plain office building where he went to work early each morning, the place we would take out-of-town guests to look at old rockets in a field in the Houston heat. The moon itself was my favorite bedtime story, the luminous mystery he would show me every night as he carried me outdoors and told me about the stars. On July 20, however, my father’s work at NASA took on real meaning for me. He was one of the team of scientists given the task of designing the American flag that the astronauts were to place on the moon. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the flag was a last-minute decision, an opportunity to show the world who had beaten the Russians in the space-race. All I knew then was that my father and his team had to figure out how to make it fly where there was no gravity and how to store it safely on the lunar module.
“It will pop out like an umbrella,” he had told me and my mother, as he showed us pieces of the material that they had been hurriedly testing. It was what he said during the lunar landing that lodged in my young heart, though: “If this thing doesn’t pop out—if it doesn’t work—we’re just not going back home,” he announced as we watched those first steps on lunar soil. He was half-joking, of course, but I took it as a statement of fact. As the family kept their eyes glued to the screen, my young mind veered off in terrible directions. Where would we live? Where would I go to school? Would I ever see my friends again? Would my father lose his job? When the flag opened without a hitch, the whole family cheered … but no one was more relieved than I was!
On this fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, I thought about the family behind each of the many NASA scientists and astronauts: the wives and children who watched their fathers zoom away into space, wondering if they would ever return home; the spouses and children of NASA’s contractors, who had to move every few years, following the demands of the booming aerospace industry; the families of the dedicated scientists, who watched and lived the struggle to make something happen that no one had ever done before. Earlier this week, as I looked outside at a beautiful full moon, I also thought about my father and his love for creation, both the heavens and the earth. I heard the words that I say so often on Sundays as an Episcopal priest, recalling “this fragile earth, our island home.” Even in all of the excitement of our explorations, it is home, after all, that matters.