Midnight Moon Rock Mission

7/10/2011

We choose to go to the moon.”
President John F. Kennedy
Sept. 12, 1962

I didn’t see the despondency coming. I’ve known for years that the end of the space shuttle program was approaching. Yet later today, when the Atlantis docks up with the International Space Station for the last time, I expect that it’ll evoke a lot more sadness than awe.

I’m not a space travel geek though I dig astronomy. But I can do that without a solid rocket booster. What’s caused the funk is not the idea of being shuttle-less. It’s the idea of the end of American manned space flight. On reflection, its significance to my life in ways literal and symbolic is far greater than I’d realized and the loss stings.

Like millions of Americans my age, the many “where were you when” moments provided by NASA are mileposts along life’s journey. Triumphs: Glenn’s orbit, White’s walk, Armstrong’s small step. And tragedies, Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia.

My look back into space evoked a memory you have not heard of and I am shamed to admit I have not often shared. That’s probably because it involves a rare moment of intimacy with my father, with whom I had a complex and turbulent relationship.

My dad was a cop, drawn with a T-square. I am his demon spawn, born without a conformity gene. This led to unpleasantness as far back as I can remember. Particularly in the 1960s when I was just a child but pretty much all-in with the peace and love crowd that my father hated so.

We didn’t share much “common ground” because there was next to nothing upon which we agreed and whatever interested the one was summarily assumed to be crap by the other. An extremely rare exception to this dysfunctional paradigm was the space program, though we were loath to discuss it. The fact that we both followed it and didn’t fight about it was what passed in this bizarre relationship as a shared interest.

So you can perhaps imagine my shock when one day late in 1969 my mother, who often served as intermediary when important information needed exchanged, appeared at my door and announced that my father had invited me along on a bit of official police business. He’d been ordered to travel to the state line and pick up some moon rocks that were to be transferred to an exhibit in my hometown. What?…

So that night the straight-laced cop, no-doubt breaking every rule in the book, and his 11-year old boy climbed into the police cruiser and headed off to the moon rock rendezvous point on the Maryland state line. Neither one of us had ever actually handled a moon rock so that provided conversational fodder. I didn’t try to contain my excitement, but he maintained cop cool.

When we arrived for the transfer, my father parked a little farther than necessary from the Maryland cop and told me to stay in the car and slouch down a bit. It was only then that I realized he could get into trouble for having me tag along. He risked that for me?…

My father returned after a few minutes of pleasantries with the Maryland cop carrying a very ordinary cardboard box. Inside it was the precious cargo. The rocks were not loose as I’d hoped, but encapsulated in glass and mounted onto a plaque. They were actually kind of tiny, little fragments about the size of pencil points. But no matter, they were rocks and they were from the moon.

We sat there for a few minutes, in awe of our cargo. I don’t recall who looked first, but as we held the rocks our eyes were drawn to the bright moon overhead. Words were not necessary. It was as an affectionate a silence as we ever shared. Just a kid, his dad and some moon rocks.

My dad died a little over ten years ago. We’d thankfully found peace by then. I don’t recall ever discussing our moon rock moment with him and I’m sad that I didn’t tell him how grateful I am for that memory. And I’m also sad that for the foreseeable future America won’t be sending brave men and women off to get more rocks. But I can thank the folks at NASA because they truly rocked my world.

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