Friday, September 21, 2012

Changing Perspectives

After a week, I thought I would be able to evaluate the net effect.  Define and bound the scope, my engineering mind would say.  I was wrong.

We live in a culture of celebrity, one that idolizes fame and enables people to be famous for... being famous.  But it's something else to talk about an historic figure--one that "will live in history after everyone in this room is long forgotten".  Of course I thought I understood what it meant to be here, where *he* went to school.  I have the pictures in my head, and on my computer drive--him speaking to the crowd, framed by the statue of him as a student.  A moment of silence at the football game, celebrated by the band where he was a member.  A collection of memorabilia in the atrium of the building others insisted be named after him.  

That was before I got the invitation to be part of the Purdue delegation to travel to Washington for Neil Armstrong's memorial service at the National Cathedral.  I had teaching that day, and other meetings, but slowly it dawned on me.  It's *him*.  So, on September 13, I got up, made sure the Purdue and INSGC lapel pins were in my jacket pocket, and went to the Purdue airport before dawn to get on a plane and fly to Dulles Airport. The experience was a surreal convocation.  Even the weather in Washington was pristine--brilliant blue skies, wonderful sun, moderate temperatures, as if to say that even the air currents and storm fronts recognize the man.  

I made sure I had my invitation in hand, and it was important that I did.  Hundreds of people there, hundreds more wanting to be inside.  We were welcomed into the front section--Acting President Sands, Vice President Diaz, Engineering Dean Jamieson, historian Norberg, student body president Rust, Trustee Spurgeon... I spoke a word of greeting to NASA representative Alan Ladwig, whom I remembered from prior National Space Grant meetings.  "Glad you could make it."  I couldn't understand why it was so important that we be there, although I was certainly awed and honored to be.

Memorials for a head of state would do well to match this event.  And of course, other NASA faces familiar to me from my childhood through my time as Space Grant Director.  There to honor a friend, an icon, and one who brought back a piece of another world to hang in the very windows of this Cathedral. 

National Cathedral Space Window

The common sentiment was an emphasis on an uncommonly humble and honest and down-to-earth man--while being uncommonly noble, uncommonly able to bear an unimaginable burden of history and the dreams and pride of a species.  And what made him proud and grateful, all that time?

... being a Purdue-trained engineer.

Any emotion in my heart, or my eyes, froze as those words came from the dais.  The speaker mentioned Purdue.  In Indiana.  Where I'm faculty, and do Space Grant.  This is the real legacy that I'm witnessing here.  And suddenly, it all felt different.  What can I do to justify and continue Neil Armstrong's pride in this place?  It's not about grand self-elevation.  It's not really even about me.  There is this great web, on this little blue marble, that he could hide behind his thumb.  But in that moment, I could see a bit clearer what it might feel like to know one's purpose, and feel a bit more at peace with it, with a hope to manage whatever legacy and connection I might achieve with a fraction of the grace he did.

Shaking hands with Gene Cernan afterwards, I noticed that a major shift was beginning to take place in my own thoughts.  I tried to fight back a bit of speechless awe.  And then he smiled at me and said, "I like your P." 

This is part of my life, to have had these experiences, and these connections.  Yet another unexpected lesson, which is still affecting me today.  "What's it like to walk on the moon?  It's wonderful, but pilots are born to fly."  How can I, or anyone else, learn and experience and celebrate what one was born to do?  More than celebrity, more than history, more than adulation, that is a wondrous teaching and model...

To reach out, and touch the face of God.