I stepped carefully onto the ascending escalator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., wondering if I had selected the right dress for a very special evening with my father-in-law, Austin Leslie Gaver, and other guests at NASA's Fortieth Anniversary Celebration of Apollo 11's July 1969 mission. Sure, I had been to the museum countless times, but this was different. Usually I was visitor in denim, a mom with twins in tow, looking up to marvel at the Spirit of St. Louis and other planes. Now I was a guest looking around in awe of a place transformed -- an elegant, candle-lit, catered affair for people who had been a part of the space program. I took a deep breath as Austin (Les, as he was known in NASA circles) and I walked over to get our name badges.
Neil Armstrong's very recent departure from this earth, and my father-in-law's passing less than six months ago has made me think of how my husband Jay's childhood was somewhat defined by the space program, spending numerous summers at Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, and vicariously being a part of the happenings at Houston and the Kennedy Space Center through his dad's 37-year career with NASA during some of its pivotal, exciting years.
After a lovely and delicious dinner, we walked into a large auditorium/ seating area. People were mingling, not yet taking their seats. I saw Austin walk up to an elderly man up front. The man said, "Gaver! How are you?" It was Mike Collins! I stood back, watching two friends laugh and reminisce like old school chums at a high school reunion. About fifteen feet away, the all-American hero, Neil Armstrong stepped past! Thoughts of my carefree, girlhood days flashed in my mind. Then it was time to take our seats.
That summer night was over three years ago -- a night I'll always treasure. I learned so much about the man behind the scenes, the man orchestrating the camera angles, footage & film, the man working with the media.
In 1960, after serving in the Air Force, then working as a photographer for REA, Austin went to work as the head of NASA's fledgling Audio / Visual department. He worked with the original seven astronauts to make sure their activities were documented, and coordinated motion picture coverage of pre-launch and launch activities. He directed and produced television feeds to the world's media, and helped fight to get cameras on the actual lunar module of the Apollo 11 mission so the world could see the astronauts on the moon. He was the first person to see and handle film from the moon as he edited it for public release. Virtually every picture or television film from the six Apollo missions was edited and selected by Austin.
Working at such a monumental time in American history at an amazing place gave Austin the opportunity to meet and become friends with some renowned individuals such as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, Alan Shepard, Norman Rockwell, and several U.S. Presidents. In fact, he handled all the audio / visual activities at the White House and congressional levels, and went to the White House in every administration from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan.
At dinner, Austin told me that some of his favorite memories included, photographing Dwight Eisenhower and his family in the White House pool, and chuckling at how when setting up media equipment (very, very early one morning) at the White House, Lyndon Johnson came down, leaned over the stairs and said with some irritation, "Quit making noise down there so I can get some sleep!"
The last ten years of his career he was also the executive producer of the satellite feed known as NASA Select Television. Although everyone knew his accomplishments at work, I knew him as my father-in-law and granddad to my twins -- the most generous and humble man I've ever met.
You may be wondering what all of this has to do with homeschooling. Well, it led us to study space and aviation like you wouldn't believe. It motivated my teaching, and spurred the twins to delve into details of different missions and astronauts.
As the evening concluded and we descended the escalator back to the parking lot -- I clutched my souvenir bag and reflected on the celebration, feeling fortunate to have been at the Air and Space museum that special night -- and how very blessed I was to know the man behind the camera.