I have reached the age where I don’t particularly enjoy being reminded I’m getting old.
Another reminder came last week and hit close to home — close to my childhood home.
John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, died Thursday at age 95. He was the last surviving member of NASA’s Mercury astronauts.
As a young boy, I was transfixed by space. I could rattle off details about our astronauts. I crammed my head full of facts about the tiny craft that carried them into space.
I spent hours sprawled in front of our black-and-white television watching the news of countdowns, launches and “splashdowns.” I was fascinated by the rockets and the massive tongues of flame they produced.
I was a proud Iowan when I heard about the pioneering space research by James Van Allen, the University of Iowa physicist who grew up in Mount Pleasant. My pride swelled again when I learned that radios on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft were made by skilled men and women at the Collins Radio Co. in Cedar Rapids.
In spite of being caught up in space news, I never wanted to be an astronaut. I didn’t even like to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl at the Davis County Fair. The double Ferris wheel at the Iowa State Fair went too high for me.
But America’s space program carried an important message for kids 50 years ago: Even if you grow up in rural Iowa, anything is possible if you aim high and work hard.
Two examples illustrate that:
Ninety miles west of Bloomfield, just off Iowa Highway 2 in Ringgold County, is Beaconsfield, population 15. It is the hometown of Peggy Whitson, 56.
Whitson graduated from nearby Mount Ayr High School in 1978 and earned her degree in biology and chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College. She joined NASA as a scientist in 1989 and became an astronaut in 1996.
What an astronaut she has been.
Whitson has flown two missions aboard the International Space Station, in 2002 and 2007, each lasting six months. She became the first woman to serve as its commander. She has spent more time in space than any other woman in world history.
In November, Whitson rode a Russian rocket back to the International Space Station for a third stay. She will spend six months orbiting the Earth. Before she returns home next spring, she will have surpassed all of the American male astronauts for time in space.
It’s an impressive record of achievement for any person. Graduating classes at Mount Ayr High School have roughly the same number of students as NASA has astronauts — about 45.
Thirty-five miles north of Bloomfield is the Mahaska County town of Fremont, population 740. This is where Steve Bales, now 74, grew up.
Bales is a NASA legend — even though he’s never gone higher than flying on a jetliner.
Bales joined NASA in 1964 after receiving his aeronautical engineering degree from Iowa State University. He was assigned as a guidance engineer for space flights.
On the afternoon of July 20, 1969, a nervous world was glued to its radios and televisions as a lunar lander named Eagle floated down toward the surface of the moon carrying its first human visitors, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Steve Bales — son of the school janitor and hairdresser in Fremont — was a flight controller on duty in Mission Control. He had final responsibility for Eagle’s navigation and guidance systems. He was only 26 years old.
The Eagle was just seven minutes from landing on the moon’s surface when the lander’s onboard computer issued the first of a series of obscure alarms that warned it was struggling to keep up. A nervous Armstrong asked Mission Control, “What is it?”
It was up to Bales to decide in a split second whether the landing should proceed or be aborted. The cool-headed Bales and his backroom team knew the computer problem was manageable as long as the alarms were not continuous. He quickly replied, “We’re go!” — meaning the landing could proceed.
All of this is relevant now as Congress and the Iowa Legislature prepare to gather next month. One of their targets will be education spending.
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, has been a vocal advocate for school choice and for-profit charter schools. Educators are rightfully concerned that money to expand those initiatives will come at the expense of public schools.
Neither DeVos nor Trump attended public schools. Both also educated their children in private schools. That’s another reason supporters of public schools are nervous.
At the Iowa Capitol, Republican lawmakers are expected to go after public employee unions as well as focusing on tax cuts. Neither goal bodes well for Iowa’s K-12 public schools — schools that have educated generations of people like Peggy Whitson, Steve Bales and James Van Allen — and the Evans boys, too.
Can Iowa’s public schools do a better job? Certainly.
But before lawmakers start whittling away at money for public schools, we should remind them public schools don’t get to choose who gets in and who doesn’t. Public schools don’t get to turn away children with learning disabilities or special education needs. They don’t get to tell students for whom English is a second language, “Sorry, no room.”
by Randy Evans
Reprinted from the Bloomfield Democrat