A Different Apollo Story

I didn’t think my family had an Apollo era story to share, at least not one I ever heard, but I was wrong. Every time a big Apollo mission anniversary rolls around, everyone begins to share stories and memories about the day men landed on the Moon.

Apollo 11 command module Columbia at Space Center Houston as part of the traveling Destination Moon exhibit

Apollo 11 command module Columbia at Space Center Houston as part of the traveling Destination Moon exhibit

For years I’ve clung to the same story: there wasn’t one, neither of my parents watched the launch or landing and neither had an experience to share with me.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a couple decades to realize that there was a story there the whole time.  It wasn’t a story about seeing any of the launches, or landings, nor was it about being inspired by what had been accomplished. It was a different Apollo story.

Growing up my dad loved to tell us his “histories”. Dad came home from work, sat down to dinner at our huge dining room table and said, “Who wants to hear a history?”.

They were short stories about his life growing up in Mexico and the United States that were sometimes injected with lessons, but most were just anecdotal. Either way I loved to hear them, and often made requests for more.

I developed an interest in astronomy and all things space when I was about ten, during an astronomy themed Girl Scout camp.  I was hooked and read everything the library had on the shelves about space and space exploration before moving on to the video collection.

Naturally, I asked my parents if they remembered the Moon landing, if they had the chance to see it on TV and could tell me about it. To my shock, neither of them saw TV coverage of the landing or moon walk. Both said that they knew it happened, they remember knowing about it, knowing it was happening as it was happening, but neither was able to watch it on TV.

I remember being upset. Upset that they missed out on witnessing such a huge moment in history and upset that they didn’t have a story to share with me.

At some point I again asked my dad to share his memories of the Moon landing, if he ended up watching any footage of it since then. He was in the middle of sewing a seat cushion for a couch he was reupholstering and only stopped to speak when he ran the fabric completely through the machine. As he clicked the motor off, he said, “I’m going to tell you a history.”

I already knew that my dad wasn’t able to watch any of the Saturn V launches or missions that happened because there wasn’t a television to watch it on in his village. What he hadn’t told me about were the attempts he made to be able to watch the coverage.

Dad told me that sometime after the landing he made his way to a movie theater that was going to play film of the mission. He didn’t get to go to the movies often so he was excited, but he was turned away at the ticket counter. Undeterred, it happened to him plenty of places around town, he went back to his room and worked on his appearance some more. Dad returned and was again refused.

My dad went on to tell me how each time he was turned away, he regrouped and tried again- styling his hair like the actors in the movie posters he saw on the walls of the theater and purchasing jeans like other young men were wearing. Finally, his persistence paid off and he was allowed to purchase a ticket. He saw the movie and saw what he had only heard about up until then.

For years, up until recently, I missed the lesson I think my dad was trying to share with me. I only heard what I wanted to hear: Dad didn’t have a TV to watch the landing on and on top of that he was denied entrance to watch just because of who he was.

At the time our family was dealing with a series of racially motivated incidents after moving from Chicago to the suburbs, and I had already experienced the confusion and shame that comes with being refused service. So for the longest time I was solely impressed with the fact that this was still happening.

I thought then, and still think now, that my dad was telling me in his own way that if there was something you want, you make a way and you keep trying. Thinking back, it was a lesson he drilled into me all the time. Keep trying. Come up with a new way, look for a way, find a way, make a way.

It’s a lesson I hear all the time at NASA. There is a way. We will find it. We will keep trying. You can’t help but be inspired by folks that work in the space program.

As each year comes to an end most of us take some time to reflect and look back on they year we had. Normally, I look back and try to pick out the highlights among all the incredible opportunities I have as a witness to space history, but this year I noticed there was a theme- lessons shared and learned.

For me, the theme was established early on and kept poking at me throughout the year. In January, I recalled the day my dad shared that bit of his history with me. He couldn’t have known that while he pressed on for access just to watch a rocket launch on screen, I would go on to cover rocket launches and the space program.

I witnessed the OSIRIS-REx launch from the roof of Vehicle Assemble Building, captured behind me.

Ready to head to the roof of the VAB for the OSIRIS-REx launch in 2016 at Kennedy Space Center.

In just a generation, that find a way drive would see me standing on top of the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, the very building where Saturn V rockets were stacked and then rolled out onto the pad to watch a rocket launch.

The last four years covering space exclusively, pressing on for access and claiming my spot in the media scrum, is another important chapter in my story, but one for another day. I will say that because of what my parents have shared with me, what I’ve been through, and especially because of the feedback I get from young women and girls, especially those of color, when they see me working or find out what I do, I make a point of always representing.

It’s important to me that the next generation heading to and witnessing space has access and sees themselves in the faces of our current space program. Our future in space needs to be for all humanity, needs to include more women and people of color.

That is my family’s Apollo story.
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Filed under: Interviews

Tags: Apollo, NASA

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