My family was traveling home from the beach — salty, sandy, tired. Just one hour from home, my dad pulled the station wagon off the highway under a bright orange sign: a Howard Johnson’s motel. He went into the motel lobby and talked to the manager at the desk. Moments later, he ushered all of us into the lobby.

Inside, the manager and a few guests were clustered around a small television, and we joined them. On the television screen, we saw a big room filled with men watching all kinds of monitors and gauges. They seemed excited. Everyone in the motel lobby seemed excited, too.

The television picture changed, and everyone in the motel lobby seemed to hold their breath. A pale image filled the black and white screen: a man in a big white suit and helmet, climbing awkwardly down a ladder onto a barren white landscape. He took the last step off the ladder.

Neil Armstrong descends the ladder toward the Moon's surface.

Neil Armstrong

“That’s one small step for [a] man … one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong said as he became the first human to walk on the Moon. Everyone in the motel lobby cheered and applauded. Around the world, more than 600 million people watched that step with us.

It’s been 42 years since I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969 at 10:56 p.m. I didn’t understand much of what I saw then, but I knew one thing: This was something important, and my dad wanted to be sure I saw it.

Just a few years ago, I had the rare opportunity to spend some time with Charlie Duke, who had been one of the excited men in the control room on the television screen. Gen. Duke served as CAPCOM for Apollo 11 and was the first person to speak to Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin after they landed the lunar module on the Moon. He became a Moon walker himself in 1972, and he tells great stories about his adventures as an astronaut.

Gen. Duke spoke at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center during the premiere of our “Destination: Space” planetarium show. I served as a guide during his visit to Chapel Hill, driving him from and to the airport and to media interviews. It’s probably one of my favorite Morehead memories. First, because it’s totally cool to have someone who has walked on the Moon sitting in my car, and second, because I know how much my dad would have enjoyed riding with us and listening to the conversation.

This is what I learned from my dad: When a parent is excited about science, his or her children are going to be excited about science, too. That interest, that passion, that enthusiasm — it’s contagious. I see examples every day at Morehead. Children, parents and grandparents are learning about science together, and they’re excited about their discoveries.

My interest in space exploration began in a Howard Johnson’s motel lobby in Jacksonville, N.C., 42 years ago. When and where did your parents inspire you to learn more about science?

Thanks, Dad.

Harry Potter would have needed magic to pass his astronomy exam in book 5.

J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, must be a bit of an astronomy buff. She named a number of her characters after stars or constellations, such as Bellatrix, Draco, Regulus, and Sirius. And in her book about Harry’s fifth school year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Rowling even gave Harry an astronomy exam.

What an exam, though! Harry appeared to have an impossible task that night—to note the location of the constellation Orion in the June sky.

Rowling had Harry successfully complete Orion on his star chart, but Orion wasn’t visible in the night sky from anywhere on the planet that month. In June, when viewed from Earth, the stars of Orion lie roughly in the same line of sight as the Sun. So Orion is above the horizon only in the daytime.

To see Orion in the middle of the night in June, Harry must have used some serious magic, possibly whipping the Earth to another place in its orbit around the Sun. Let’s hope he received extra credit.

This week, we’ll use Morehead magic to re-create the night sky on the planetarium dome for two programs about what you can see this summer:

Both programs are aimed at Muggles (non-magic people, in Harry Potter’s world) who want to learn to identify what’s overhead on North Carolina summer nights. Please register online in advance.

During the Summer Skies programs, we'll see Orion's enemy, Scorpius (another Harry Potter character, known to fans who have read to the very end of the series).

Bateman, biomedical engineer

A few Morehead folks had the chance to go down to watch the last shuttle launch and meet up with Dr. Ted Bateman, a biomedical engineer. He has a research project aboard STS-135 and is going to talk about it on Tuesday, July 12, at 6 p.m. at the Back Bar in downtown Chapel Hill.

If you’re at all interested in how space affects astronauts and how studying that might benefit us here on Earth, then this is the cafe for you.

Let’s get to know Ted:

Where did you grow up? I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado.

What did you want to be when you were a kid? I suppose I was being “trained” to be a scientist.  I won the science fair in sixth grade with a study feeding mice different diets and running them through a maze to see how it affected learning.

How did you get interested in science? My mom was a high school science teacher, and she always brought the lab projects home. I first got interested in NASA when I spent a summer at Kennedy Space Center doing space life sciences experiments while I was an undergrad.

In one sentence, describe your job: I run a lab where we research the effects of ionizing radiation on the skeletal system, trying to better understand what space radiation does to astronauts and how radiation therapy affects cancer patients. [My team's] Space Shuttle work with microgravity is a “hobby” that I have been fortunate to work with for more than 15 years.

What’s a special talent/trick/skill/hobby you have that you’re colleagues don’t know about? I used to be really, really good at brewing beer. I need to pick that up again.

If someone wrote you a blank check to explore any aspect of your field’s research, what would you want to do and why? I would accelerate our clinical trials studying radiation therapy-induced osteoporosis. Women with gynecological tumors have a greater risk for hip fractures, and we can prevent this with existing treatments- we just need to prove the drugs work.

Or- thinking entirely NASA…

Build the habitats to fly mice on the replacement vehicles for the Space Shuttle. We have the opportunity to get mice up to Space Station for long-term experiments, but the animal habitats are not being built.

Great stuff, Ted. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions while prepping for the big launch.

Please join us this Tuesday at the Back Bar! Special thanks to Sigma Xi for their continued support of the Carolina Science Cafe program.

Jonathan

Jonathan Frederick is the director of the North Carolina Science Festival. He wonders what the astronaut mice are thinking about right now.