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.

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