When Hogwarts was called “The Moon:” on the 50th Anniversary of the flight of Friendship 7

February 20th marks the 50th anniversary of the flight of Colonel John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. My sons, who are fifteen and seventeen, do not know who he is.

This was made abundantly clear during a recent family trip to Florida, when one day, between our time at Animal Kingdom and Epcot and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, I dragged the family over to Cape Canaveral.  There, we boarded a bus to view launch pads 39-A and 39-B, rode something called the “Space Shuttle Launch Simulator,” and gazed upon the silhouettes of the Mercury-Atlas and the Gemini-Titan and many others relics in NASA’s somber and beautiful “rocket garden.”

“The Atlas was the rocket used for the last four Mercury missions,” I excitedly told my sons, “replacing the less powerful Redstone used by Alan  Shepherd and Gus Grissom in the suborbital missions of Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7.  But it was John Glenn who first rode the Mercury Atlas in Friendship 7, and it was the power of the Atlas that enabled Glenn to attain Earth orbit.”

My son Sean checked his watch.  “Don’t be like that,” I suggested.

“Like what?”

“Bored.”

“Why shouldn’t we be bored?” my sons asked, reasonably enough. “There’s nothing to do here!”

“Because,” I said.  “Space is important!”

“Maybe to you,” said Zach.

The day before, we’d been to the new Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios, a park whose corporate symbol is a giant spinning planet Earth.  The family had awakened in our vacation condo at dawn, then screamed down the highway in order to be in the park  at “rope-drop,” the moment when Universal officially opened and the crowd of many hundreds began stampeding toward the Wizarding World.  We’d wound up waiting in a 30-minute queue at Hogwarts anyhow, before at last being loaded onto our “broomsticks” and rocketing around the Quidditch field and having dragons breathe faux-smoke in our faces.

In the Sixties, Hogwarts was called The Moon,  He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named  was known as Nikita Kruschev, and The Boy Who Lived was Colonel John Glenn.  It’s hard now to imagine the obsession we had then with the progress toward outer space, but I can assure you that each launch from Cape Kennedy was anticipated by my friends and me with the same breathless wonder that my boys later reserved for the release of each successive volume  of J.K. Rowling’s  brilliant heptalogy.

I cannot tell you the seven horcruxes without consulting Wikipedia (okay, fine: the diary, the ring, the locket, the goblet, the diadem, Nagini the snake, and whoa: Harry himself).  But I can instantly tell you the name of the vehicle the Gemini capsules docked with in 1966 (the AGENA); the only manned Saturn mission to use the Saturn 1-B rocket rather than the Saturn 5 (Apollo 7); and the names  of the three Apollo 1 astronauts killed in the terrible flash fire of February 21, 1967–Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee.

I am grateful I  grew up at a time when the country had such a strange and outsized dream.  For those of us who observed it all as children, the space race was an important counterpoint to the decade’s hope-shattering violence.  (There is a powerful moment in Lorrie Moore’s novel, Who Will Save the Frog Hospital? when one character of my generation turns to another and says, by way of explaining our youth,  “We ice-skated to ‘Eve of Destruction.’ ‘The western world, it is exploding,’ and we’d do these little spins and turns.” )

It took longer to get in to the Space Shuttle Simulator ride at Kennedy. than it did to board the Mission: Space ride at Epcot.   The line snaked around the building, and our progress was slow.  To pass the time, my sons relived the awesomeness of the Wizarding World. They’d bought  wands at Ollivanders. They’d drunk butterbeer.  My older boy, a high school senior, had purchased  a set of robes that bore the crest of his preferred house:  Hufflepuff.  (“I’m hard working and loyal!”)  We’d determined which member of the family belonged to which house.  I was deemed a Slytherin.

At last we were strapped in to the simulator.  We listened to the countdown, which, embarrassingly, gave me chills.  There was an ear-blasting roar, and the faux spacecraft shook so hard I feared my glasses would fly off.  Then a voice from Mission Control said, “We have a serious  problem!  Guidance systems are malfunctioning!  You’re going to have to fly manu–”

At this moment, all the lights  came on and the doors of the ride  opened.  Our astronaut corps was confused.  At the moment the shuttle was simulating a malfunction, the ride actually malfunctioned.  A man with a huge beard  came into the room and apologized.  “Sorry, man,” he said. “This happens sometimes.”  The representative of the Slytherin house,  predictably,  made a few sarcastic remarks about how running the simulator “wasn’t exactly rocket science.”

The dude unplugged something, and plugged it back in, and then closed the doors and launched us again.  The second time, when we went through the simulated malfunction, everything went just fine. A few minutes later we stepped out of the simulator and into the Florida twilight, where the sun was now disappearing behind the rocket garden.

I remembered reading my sons the first Harry Potter book a dozen years earlier, and my younger boy’s love of the description of the Quidditch matches. “I wish I were Harry Potter,” Sean had said, back when he was four.  “I want to fly through the air.”

I had tried to explain to him that when I was his age, Americans had done just that.

Standing there on the Florida coast, I saw the moon, shining down upon the earthbound rockets.  It looked very far away.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is the author of 12 books including She’s Not There, a memoir (Broadway/Random House).  She is Professor of English at Colby College in Maine

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2 Comments

  1. Posted February 20, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Our future has changed, but I would wish your boys a future in the real world. I tried hard to instill a consciousness of the space adventure in my now-21-year-old daughter as she was growing up a Harry Potter fan–she stayed up all night after her Bat Mitzvah reading the Harry Potter volume which had come out that day–by taking her to movies like “For All Mankind” when she was pretty young, and to see Buzz Aldrin narrate “The Planets” with the Boston Symphony on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. She moved away from science and math toward a major in Peace and Global Studies, trying to fix up the Earth, which while not the Moon or Mars, is not a bad goal.

  2. Debbie Brady
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Hi Jenny
    I share your memories of the space race, I was in the Navy when The moon landing was made. We were on the USS Independence CVA62 doing Carrier Qualifications for new pilots.We were close enough to the Florida cost to catch the moon landing on Miami TV. I have always been a space junky. I was pretending to be a man in those days. But like you I finally had to let my inner woman take over and I became truly happy for the first time in my life. My only regret is that I waited until I was 50 to do it. I am now 62 and retired and loving life. I have read all your books and am a big fan, I also grew up close to where you lived in Pennsylvania.

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  • The Boylan Family, summer 2010

    DSC_0063 "You hang around our family, you learn all kinds of stuff."
  • Will Forte as Jennifer Finney Boylan on “Saturday Night Live”

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  • Jenny with Barbara Walters, December, 2008

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  • Jenny atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin

    2036947979_34bfbec240 August, 2002.
  • Surrounded

    boylanWith President Clinton and Maine's Governor John Baldacci, fall 2006.
  • JFB and Edward Albee

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    Edward had been my teacher at Johns Hopkins in the winter of 1986. He visited Colby in fall, 2007. As we took our leave of each other, he kissed me on both cheeks and said, "We have done well. You and I."

  • Jenny and her teacher, the great John Barth

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    Jack was my professor at JHU when I did my thesis, back in the day. After many years, I can now confidently say I finally understand his definition of plot. Which is, of course, "the perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium."