Last Friday one of our local icons of science education, a fellow by the name of Jim Honeycutt, dropped in on classes at Eastside High School. Jim’s columns on astronomy occasionally grace the pages of this paper, as he follows a – no pun intended – stellar career in the public schools by teaching astronomy at Oxford College of Emory University.
Affectionately known as “Honey Pot,” Jim played a vital role in the construction of observatories at Newton High and nearby Hard Labor Creek State Park, and appeared in EHS physics, chemistry and anatomy classes to present lessons still being learned from the study of rocks which have been on Earth for just 40 years.
They’re moon rocks, of course. America’s space program began bringing them to Earth in 1969 as Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins completed their Apollo 11 mission.
Most everybody alive in ’69 can remember straining to make sense of a grainy black-and-white television picture broadcast by a remote camera mounted on the leg of the lunar lander.
“That’s one small step for a man,” said NASA’s civilian pilot, Armstrong, from the Sea of Tranquility, “one giant leap for mankind.”
Forty years later, an old man, once an idealistic youth, wonders whatever happened to the magic of those days. Handsome, youthful, and a World War II hero, President John F. Kennedy had challenged America to send a man to the moon, and return him safely to the earth before the decade of the 1960’s was out, and America had done it.
But Kennedy was dead, assassinated in Dallas. His brother was dead, assassinated in California as he ran for President in 1968.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was dead, shot down on Memphis motel balcony. The Vietnam War was ripping the soul of the nation apart, kids were experimenting with hard drugs and sex, the Soviet Union had nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at us and we had even more aimed back at them, and about the time Apollo 11 made its initial descent to the moon a Federal judge in Boston devised a plan to bus children across the breadth of Atlanta to bring about an end to segregated public schools.
As the close of the 1960’s drew nigh, the world needed a little magic, indeed.
Moon rocks, forty years old, and sliced into slivers encased in clear plastic discs for study under microscopes: they’re still available through NASA’s Education Awareness Office. Kids still get a chance to hold a moon rock in their hands, a rock from another place in space, a real extraterrestrial thing.
But I wonder: can they still feel the magic in those rocks?
What happened? Why did we stop going? Why did we settle for a bus trip around our own planet, instead of going back to the moon to establish a colony, using that orb as a platform to launch deep space probes of our own galaxy, and beyond?
Well, we beat the Russians, I guess. The USSR halted their moon program almost as soon as Armstrong called out “Tranquility Base here; the Eagle has landed.” NASA’s safety efforts made trips to the moon into almost routine things, the sense of urgency to beat the Russians vaporized, and the public lost interest.
In fairness, though, there was enough going on right here on Earth to fill everyone’s plate.
But the mystique, the magic, was in space, the final frontier. Mankind has always wanted to know what lies out there, and why we are here. What’s our purpose? What — or who — put us here?
Forty years. Incalculable dollars spent on everything from longer-lasting light bulbs to industrial waste cleanup to war to malaria research to finding the Titanic to electing politicians who promise one thing and deliver the same old, same old.
“Honey Pot” knows of the magic, as do all of us old enough to remember the exciting days when Ford introduced the Falcon, Chevy brought forth the Corvair, and America built the Pan-American Highway stretching from the tip of South America all the way to the Yukon Territory in Canada.
I’m sure a sense of amazement could be elicited by contemplating a list of inventions created either expressly for America’s space program, or spinning off from it, which have improved life as we know it on Earth.
But I’m not so certain of what might today provide a spark of wonder to intrigue today’s young people as they contemplate what to do with their lives.
And that’s too bad, because as “Honey Pot” knows, there are lessons yet to be learned from 40-year-old moon rocks. Space, the final frontier, still beckons. Mankind still needs someone to boldly go where none have gone before.
It may be 40 years old, but the magic still lives.
Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.