Monte Sano, an isolated spot amidst a homey city, a location with lush green trees with hiking trails snaking through them, adorned with a Japanese garden, disc golf course, an observatory and an overlook of the valley below. A picturesque spot for hiking, picnics, and the typical bible verse Instagram picture caption that the surrounding residents lived for. Cell phone signal doesn’t work here, so any type of navigation will be surrendered at the gate, leaving you putty in the hands of nature.
Huntsville is a place of believers. We believe in space exploration and the moon landing and space education. Americans were the first to walk on the moon and our flag reigns victor over Earth. In 1954, a sixteen year old high school student, wrote in to Wernher Von Braun asking for an observatory for astronomy students. Von Braun was one of the believers and if you look deep within the woods, just before the east side overlook and beyond the planetarium gate, an observatory stands erect in a grassy field. The Von Braun Astronomical Society crafted this out of a third stage fuel tank that was used in the Saturn V. The rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
July 20,1969, an estimated 600 million people watched as the moon landing occurred. Reactions of wonder poured in globally and a new sense of pride washed over the American people. This is an event that the people who were alive to see it knew where they were when it happened and the people they were with. It was a big deal and still is, adding to our country’s list of achievements. A day to be celebrated.
My boyfriend is about to graduate with a degree in Aerospace Engineering with a focus in space related endeavors, a dream of his for as long as he can remember. He’s spent the last few summers interning with NASA, but will soon be venturing off somewhere to get a stable job, leaving this company he put in so much work for, for a different opportunity and this is our last summer in the same hometown. The last moon landing party he’ll be in town for and he was determined to go. A party that carried on past work into the night, into individual homes and favorite bars, but for us, it carried on to the observatory that was crafted by the chief architect of the rocket that took us there. The Wernher Von Braun Planetarium.
At first, I was hesitant to go. I had just worked a long 10 hour shift and everything on me hurt, but he was just so excited and you know how it goes. You love someone and you can push yourself just a little more to see them happy. It took me a little while to figure out how you would even celebrate the moon landing due to the most education that I’ve had on space, was a unit in a sixth grade science class on the solar system and a week in Space Camp in the fourth grade. I wasn’t ignorant, but I wasn’t NASA material like Tommy either. Either way, I saw the importance of celebrating something that means a lot to him and a lot to our country, and I was promised snacks, so on our way we went.
We pulled onto a gravel road and went for the next half mile until it dead ended by a little walkway that parted the thick oaks. The path was just wide enough for two and secluded enough that you felt like you were heading to nowhere. “Look at this.” Tommy guided me over to a wooden post in the ground that stands about four feet tall. The first in the sequence of nine, a scaled version of the distance the planet is from the moon. “It’s Pluto.” he says and smiles warmly at me.
I smile back at him. Tommy had decided that Pluto is our planet. It’s the farthest planet away from us in our solar system and we deem it more effective to say “I love you to Pluto and back” than resort back to that typical moon crap, some may see the irony in it. The continuous is it or is it not a planet debate and the chilling aura of ice and rock make it far from romantic, but this is my longest and healthiest relationship, so I’ll say to hell with that. I love you to Pluto and back.
We follow the pathway glancing at the wooden posts and then racing off to the next one, laughing and kicking up gravel the whole way disturbing the wildlife lurking off to the side. We emerge into a clearing, the air was sticky and packed with mosquitos — the remnants of an Alabama summer day. To my surprise, there were about a hundred people congregating amongst telescopes. The area itself was small, no more than about an acre total, enclosed on all sides by a dense treeline. The telescopes were a wonder in themselves. All shapes and sizes and most, to my knowledge, didn’t look like telescopes, more along the lines of boxes with mirrors adorning them.
The last experience I had with a telescope was in Space Camp, my fourth grade self wasn’t able to really touch anything, but just peer down into the lens and look for the big balls of glowing light that we had learned about. It was hyped up for days. Movie and The Stars night. It was an overnight camp, so we all went back to our little dorm rooms to change into our pajamas and hiked up to the movie room with our blankets. We watched a documentary on stars and ate little bowls of popcorn as we stared at the screen in awe. In little groups, we were brought up to the rooftop to see the Space and Rocket Center’s ‘for educational use only’ telescope. “Hey Pat,” I asked as I stood in front of the telescope, “how long does it take to get to the moon?”.
“Well,” he said, “to start off you can’t just go to the moon, so the training is the longest part.”
“How long is long?” I asked suspiciously. Weighing a potential career haphazardly by the time Pat would respond with.
“It takes at least two years”
Well that was that. Two years was an eternity to me as a fourth grader and I immediately put that thought out of my head for the rest of my schooling career and the idea of going to space never crossed my mind again. Not to say that I never had a passion for the stars, I have always loved the stars. The fact of looking in telescopes again made me feel quite anxious, but excited nonetheless.
Tommy dragged me up into the midst of the telescopes and people asking for help with them, owners demonstrating their qualities and unique features, most only identifiable to the trained eye, unlike mine. I walked along the telescopes, smiling and nodding as their owners told me everything about them from their viewing specialities to the type of screws that held the base together. There was almost a flow to the traffic among the telescopes and as soon as someone finished explaining one, you were pushed along to the next. The last one of the pack, had a line leading up to it, and Tommy seemed to know everyone in line – shaking hands with people of all ages and shouting people’s names over the heads of those nearby. The couple behind us worked together at NASA with him and they were spouting off just about everything they could think of space related with excitement and complete with hand motions.
My thoughts drifted away from their conversation and refocused on the commotion that had started off along the perimeter of the event. There was a van, one of those mom vans, with a flat screen T.V covering the width of the trunk. The man was clean cut and shaven, with a nice button down and some well fitted jeans, as well as a pair of wire rimmed glasses that made him look honest and intelligent. The way he moved was stiff, like he worked at a desk job and standing was foreign to himHe had a slideshow going with ‘The Moon Landing was faked’ and ‘The Moon Landing is a product of photoshop’. He shook a ream of pamphlets in the faces of passersby begging someone to ‘join in an intellectual argument’.
I saw a woman approach the man taking steps of such fury that made me inwardly groan. I was hoping that no one would approach the man and I was hoping she would just take a pamphlet and —
“How dare you.”
I noticeably grimace as the man stalks up to her and proudly puffs his chest.
“Are you a misinformed believer?” he says loudly, looking to draw a crowd.
“I just can’t believe you would walk in here and try to suck the life out of a celebration of education. Which you seem to be lacking.”
I nudge Tommy thinking this is just about to get good, but the rest of the event seems to sense a blow up in the works and starts to get quiet which alerts one of the staff to walk over to the fuming woman with a bottle of water and leads her away from the man distracting her with small talk. I learn from the couple behind me that he is one of the conspiracy theorists that make it a point to come to the astronomical events with new pamphlets and slideshow. They talked about it being a shame that he was in that state of mind because he was just so smart, truly wasted potential.
At the end of the line, a telescope stood around eight feet tall, accompanied with a ladder for access to the eyepiece. “Step on up!” the owner motioned to his telescope, appearing like a highly intellectual carny. And waited until I was adjusted confidently up on the ladder in order to begin his spiel.
“Today we’re going to find the sea of tranquility, this is one of the hardest things to find on a telescope and it is the site of the moon landing which I’m assuming you’re here to celebrate today,” he droned on.
I looked at him to acknowledge what he was saying and I was greeted by a ‘Please look back in the eyepiece ma’am’ and he continued on.
“You should be seeing a mostly smooth surface. Find the two craters in the left-most side of the frame and then start looking to the right. Slowly. Thatta Girl. Now look for three little craters, they should be close together. Do you see them?” he asks.
“I think so”
“Great. Those craters have names, two of them are named after the astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin and the third, after their command module pilot Michael Collins. With a normal telescope, these would not be visible,” he remarks proudly. “If you look a little below that, you should see a dark spot almost like a smudge, that is the Sea of Tranquility. If you see that, look a bit down and a bit to the right and that is your moon landing.”
I look back at him in awe. I know he had the whole thing memorized and he had probably said it over a hundred times that day but it amazed me how I was able to find it so quickly. The man did the same thing for Tommy and he all but fell off the ladder trying to get my attention to tell me how cool it was, although I had just seen the same thing. As we walked away, he launched into how he had never seen it in person in a telescope before and learning about The Sea of Tranquility was one of the things that got him hooked on space.
Tommy’s obsession with space began with his grandpa’s old telescope. He would sit on his lap and be guided to different stars and planets and, his favorite, the moon. His grandpa would show him the bigger craters and talk about his memories from that day, of coming home early from work just to see when that momentous walk occurred. His grandpa didn’t stay alive much longer from the time Tommy could start remembering from that time, but his grandpa always talked about building a telescope that could see the Sea of Tranquility and the site of that moon landing up close again, like he saw on T.V so many years ago, he just never got around to it.
We walked until we came to a snack table with a banner over it ‘HAPPY MOON LANDING’ it read, scribbled in sharpie and I couldn’t help but nudge Tommy “I feel like we’re at a little kid’s birthday party,” I laughed. “Like, y’all are engineers and the best you could come up with is a sign made of sharpie.” He laughed too but we were both immediately distracted by the contents of the table. The table was littered with moon pies, bottles of R.C Cola and a cooler with the good ice (you know the kind). The lady manning the snack table looked like a typical grandma and I couldn’t help but smile. She had a sweater on even though it was July and gray hair that was twisted up into a bun. “Well aren’t you two just a lovely couple. What can I get you? We have moonpies and R.C Cola and I have water cups if you want water instead,” she finished with a wide smile.
Tommy was more excited about the R.C Cola than the moon pies even though he complains about it every time I’ve seen him drink it, saying ‘it tastes better than coke but worse than Dr. Pepper’, if you can imagine that. So I let him move towards the cola while I hang back with the lady. I learn that she’s married to an engineer at NASA and has been for 53 years.
“He just refuses to retire,” she jokes, “but I know he loves it so I’m just along for the ride.”
This hits a little close to home for me as I retreat back into my own thoughts. My own aerospace engineer, Tommy, is thinking about moving to Dallas, TX after he graduates in order to fulfill a job opening. I’ve been begging him not to go because I will be here, finishing school and he won’t be in driving distance. I’m listening to the old lady drone on and on about her husband and how special he is to her, a normal girl talk conversation and I can’t stop thinking about if this will be me and Tommy in 53 years. Him, an aerospace engineer and me, along for the ride.
Tommy interrupts my thoughts as heads back from the ice cooler and grabs a moonpie. We wish the lady a goodnight and head towards the large dome of the planetarium, leaving my thoughts behind.
There was no schedule of events posted anywhere, it was more of a ‘by word of mouth type of deal’, so when Tommy and I stumbled into the planetarium, we didn’t expect anyone to be in there formally giving a lecture. We both stopped still just inside the doorway and was greeted by a man who motioned to us.
“Come in and sit down! You’re just in time, he said, waving us in. The man had gray frizzy hair and a shirt with the NASA worm logo plastered to the front of it.
We took our seats in the back row of the chairs right as some elevator music began to play.
“Let’s dim the lights,” the man said. And the lights went down. As the room got dimmer the image that lined the dome got more defined. It was the skyline of Huntsville complete with the tall Regions bank building from downtown to the outline of the Saturn V that guards I-565, glowing bright for those driving through. There were stars that glistened in the emptiness above the skyline and twinkled above our head. We were surrounded by pinpricks of light, bright enough to cast tiny spotlights down into the crowd below.
“Hello everyone, I’m a rocket scientist at NASA,” the man introduced himself to the crowd. “Today we’ll be learning ‘How to Find Our Way in the Stars’.”
Immediately I was intrigued because of my interest in stars and constellations and you know, the desire for self guidance.
“As you can probably tell from the clearness of the skyline and the stars around you, this is what Huntsville would look like with no light pollution or smog from surrounding factories. I encourage you all to take a minute to look around and to keep looking around during this lecture. You’ll never see the sky like this in Huntsville naturally,” he lingered on this last word and let us take a minute to admire the sight around us.
Tommy and I sat and stared, as with the rest of the crowd, in silence. Craning our necks up at the stars, finding what we thought were the commonly known constellations Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt.
“Alrighty then,” the NASA rocket scientist man said “I hope you feel inspired. I’ll start by giving a brief outline of the Northern Hemisphere constellations, but first, let’s identify the North Star.”
Although this was the beginning of the lecture, this captured my attention easy and absolutely made my night. The North Star is something that will always mean something to me. When I was fourteen and going through some medical issues, my mom gave me a necklace with a pendant of a compass. From that moment on, it stuck in my head to find my North Star no matter the situation, find my light in the darkness. It’s something so cheesy but when that necklace broke, I felt lost. Something that I didn’t find again until this rocket scientist guy started talking about it. It was quite a moment for me.
The man traced the constellations around the simulated Hemisphere and noted the easy ways you can find them. He went over all the major ones, including: Ursa Major, identified by the Big Dipper and Ursa Minor, identified by the Little Dipper. He had this sense of humor about him informing us that although we may not see the animals outlined in the sky, we were not alone.
“The constellations never look like what they were called, it’s because people of the time they were discovered didn’t have the internet, but they had a lot of wine,” he laughed at his own joke and the rest of us chuckled quietly to ourselves, drowned out by his bellowing laughter that just seemed to get louder, which made us in turn laugh more.
The presentation lasted about 45 minutes discussing some history about the planetarium and NASA. This information we were told by the family in front of us, was required by the presenter to give regardless of the presentation, so I tuned out and glanced back up to the stars thinking about them and the things that lie beyond them. The ideas of wishing upon stars and praying to the one that created them. I was thinking about how I would never see the stars like this unaided by a simulation. I was thinking about how long I had until the glittering stars above me were smudged away.
The whole ride home, bumping down the road in Tommy’s pickup. I looked out the window, the stars blocked by the clouds that had rolled in. I think back to the clear, simulated night sky with stars blinking effortlessly from millions of miles away. I thought about how life was before, before there were lights and blankets of smog. Huntsville is the fastest growing city in Alabama which means more lights and more people and less stars. From where I live, on the outskirts of a small town right outside of Huntsville, I can barely see the Big Dipper on a clear night. In order to see it in all of its beauty, you would need to drive past my house for another twenty minutes, away from the lights. One day, the lights will follow the road to nowhere. Follow it until you can’t escape from them. Follow that road until the North Star becomes a figment of our imagination. I saw the excitement on the people at the event’s faces. The sense of wonder and awe at the stars through the telescope shining brightly. Only time will tell if the lights will continue down that road until the stars can be seen only with telescopes. The stars that have brought so many of these people together. Only time will tell if Tommy and I light up our road to nowhere, connecting me in Auburn to him in Dallas. Some people say our fate is held in the stars, but I don’t want it to be. Stars can disappear with a blanket of smog and turn excitement into dull, drab nothing. I believe our fate is held in Pluto, something permanent yet far away and that very few people want to see or even care to. Something that is held in the hearts of me and Tommy. A permanent fixture of our own hearts, one that has nothing on distance. Our own North Star. Our own To Pluto and Back.