Launching the Washington Monument

Day Five of the Teacher Innovator Institute; Friday, July 19, 2019

Saturn V on the monument

It took a Joint Resolution of Congress to do this, but during the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the National Air and Space Museum presented a multimedia extravaganza projected onto the Washington Monument. I got a VIP pass to see the celebration.

Our day today was a bit lighter than the previous days because our evening would be busy. The big celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing had arrived, and we were to be part of it!

World tent and Capitol

Tents and displays from various aerospace companies lined the National Mall as the celebration kicked into high gear

The Myth of Average

We started later than usual, at 10:00, so we had an almost leisurely time riding the Metro to Metro Central and from there to the Archives stop. It was already a record-breaking hot day but the humidity was a bit better than it had been the day before so it was bearable.

Gateway near STarbucks

A gateway between Starbucks at the Trump Plaza and the National History Museum on the Mall.

The 2018 cohort walked to the Air and Space Museum to help prepare for the activities going on there over the next two days, such as laying out lunar footprints representing the paths that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. A group of us walked to the Starbucks on the ground floor of the Trump Hotel, then our cohort convened in the conference room on the third floor of the Natural History Museum.

Hirschorn gourd

A giant sculpture gourd at the Hirschorn on my way to the Natural History Museum.

Mike Speidel led a discussion on the book we had been given to read for this Institute, which is The End of Average of Todd Rose. In this book, the author argues that the idea of an average person is really a statistical myth. There is no such thing as an average person. If you were to measure any set of metrics on personal size, achievement, etc. for a large representative group of people, you could add up all the measurements, divide by the number of people, and come up with a mean, a measure of central tendency. The distribution of scores would fit into a range and look like the all-too-familiar and misleading bell shaped curve.

One would think that this standard distribution actually measures a population of people. But if you tried to find any one person who was exactly average on all the measurements, no one would be found. There is no Average Man. One person might be tall but have smaller shoulders or chest while a second might be shorter but have a large chest, hips, and arms. So who is bigger? Neither. Todd Rose describes this as the “Jaggedness Principle” – any attributes in a population are distributed non-uniformly or jaggedly.

NASM staff badge

We were given visitor badges good for the whole week that allowed us to come in the staff entrance to the Air and Space Museum.

Yet we still insist that averages have some physical reality. This was shown to be untrue with a contest in the 1950s to find the average woman, based on a set of measurements of many women. The organizers had a statue commissioned of this average woman, whom they called Norma, then set out to find the person who was most like her, the normal woman. No one fitted all the averages. They finally found a lady that met the average of three of the seven measurements, but that was the best they could do. The Air Force learned this the hard way. They discovered that an alarming rate of crashes could be traced to the pilot’s seat, designed to fit the average pilot, but not actually fitting anyone. The seat was too small for one pilot, too large for another, too far from the controls for a third, and so on. After years of study and millions of dollars, they finally realized that the seat had to be made adjustable, so that any pilot could make the seat fit her or him. Accidents went down.

Das Boot

A huge astronaut boot was built out of balloons in preparation of big event the next night.

The implications for education are obvious. We have created a one-size-fits-all type of education designed to fit the non-existent average student and measure all of our students against averages and norms, trying to make them fit into a system that actually fits no one. If the Air Force can make an adjustable pilot’s seat, why can’t we make an adjustable educational system that actually fits all individuals’ needs and learning styles? People complain that our education system doesn’t work when in fact it works exactly as it was designed to do. It was designed in the early 1900s to take the children of immigrants living in large cities and the children of farmers and teach them the basic skills needed for blue-collar factory jobs working on an assembly line. So education was designed to work the same way – a large assembly line of individuals coming in and cookie-cutter clones of “educated” graduates coming out the other end with exactly the same set of standardized skills and knowledge. If students weren’t average to begin with, they certainly would be by the time they graduated. Average as in mediocre.

Red shirts

As part of our duties today in the Air and Space Museum, we were asked to wear our red TII shirt. I hope the color is not indicative of some ominous event . . .

But we are now in a post-industrial society where innovation, flexibility, and individual excellence are required. Yet our schools are still trying to churn out Model T Ford students when what we need are Tesla Roadsters and Prius Hybrids.

Mike pointed out that during the Mercury space program, each helmet was designed to fit the individual astronaut. But only a month or so ago, the first all-female spacewalk at the International Space Station had to be cancelled because they didn’t have two spacesuits up there that could fit the two female astronauts. The suits have become standardized, just as education has become. It is all based on the notion that we all have to be the same, only better. So parents spend countless dollars hiring tutors to get their children’s test scores up on the SAT and ACT so that they will be better than average. Yet you can’t capture the essence of a student in a single standardized test score.

Trevor and Machin by LM-2

Machin Norris and Trevor Macduff in front of Lunar Module 2 in the National Air and Space Museum.

We played a game called Google Feud where we divided up into teams and tried to guess the top ten searched terms in Google in different categories, such as: “Why does everyone say ____” and we got them wrong. The top search for this prompt was: “Why does everyone say ‘subscribe to Pewdiepie?’ ” We found that we couldn’t guess what the average person would ask. We all have variations from the norm, and no one fits the average.

Grading students with simple scores on assignments leads to the types of Point Pirates I see every day at my school. In fact, as we were having this discussion, since it was the last day of the term, I was having a back-and-forth series of texts with my substitute over whether there was extra credit available for the class, asked by anxious students who already had 100%.

Bell X-1

The iconic Bell X-1 supersonic jet that Chuck Yeager flew to break the sound barrier.

We talked about using competencies, mastery, and individual growth as ways to grade students and talk to parents. One example of a competency would be one’s mastery of baking and cooking. Here is how the scale would work:
0 = You have to always eat out because you can’t boil water without burning it.
1 = You can cook if you follow a recipe exactly.
2 = You can successfully make simple modifications to a cookbook recipe.
3 = You can make your own recipes.

4 = You don’ need no stinkin’ recipes. You can pull random stuff from the cupboard and make a delicious meal form scratch.
5 = You’re on the Great British Baking Show.

Apollo Soyuz

The Apollo-Soyuz display in the Space Race exhibit of the Air and Space Museum.

Now a competency rating of 5 would be highly unusual. We would like students to become independent learners and to master a skill, so a rating of 3 or 4 would indicate mastery in cooking, indicating students internalize the skill to the extent that it becomes second nature to them.

Tents in twilight by Capitol

Tents like this ringed the National Mall at the eastern end near the Capitol Building, with displays on the future of space exploration by Raytheon, Boeing, NASA, and other groups. I looked forward to checking them out the next day.

We ended our discussion with ideas on how to disrupt the education systems around us, how to talk to administrators about these ideas, and how to set up pilot programs and build social equity in our schools, so that administrators can’t say no to us when they see it work for our students. It has given me some fodder to chew on as I plan my next semester science classes.

Learning Through Objects

After a break, Shannon led a discussion and activity on how to use objects as learning tools – or what we would call an object lesson. She had a box full of unusual objects she had picked up at an antique/thrift store and passed them out to small groups for us to determine what they are and how they are used. Ours was a small wooden shoe with a leather sole and a metal heal. We though that it might be the shoe of a doll or a marionette (given the metal heal). It wound up being a shoe form for making children’s shoes – the leather and metal bottom allowed for nails to be tacked through the leather of the shoe being formed.

Capitol at night

As twilight fell, I walked to the eastern end of the Mall, where I took this photo of the Capitol Building then back toward the Washington Monument.

When we think of informal education in a museum setting, museums are full of artifacts or objects that have stories attached to them. How do we let the objects tell their own stories? How do we use them in education, both in formal and in informal settings? Many objects are not intrinsically valuable but have value because of their association with history or a historic figure. The spacesuit that went on display earlier this week at the main Air and Space Museum was no different than the space suit worn by Jim Irwin on display out at the Udvar-Hazy Center; in fact, Jim Irwin’s space suit was probably more sophisticated. But this one was worn by Neil Armstrong on the Moon, and it is anticipated that thousands will want to stand in line to see it over the next few days. How can this object be used to teach and inspire? How can it best be displayed, described, and made part of a greater lesson plan or learning objective? Why would conservationists spend years and thousands of dollars carefully preserving this suit, down to keeping the lunar dust embedded in the fabric? What meaning does this suit have to the people who see it? How is its worth far greater than its intrinsic value?

Washington Monument at twilight

Washington Monument at twilight. Shortly after this, the Saturn V rocket was projected on the monument and crowds began to gather for the show.

We ate lunch where we could find it. I ate a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at a vendor truck outside the Natural History Museum and watched squirrels and starlings and pigeons vying for scraps on the lawn beneath a tree by the trucks and souvenir stands. I walked across the mall, seeing the many tents and kiosks set up along both side sof the mall by aerospace companies including Raytheon, Boeing, and NASA itself. It was too crowded and too hot to consider looking around, so I walked over to south side of the Air and Space Museum where we had red staff badges waiting for us as we entered through the south doors.

Focus Group

We met Mike Speidel near the video wall and the Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise exhibit. Those of us who had volunteered to be in the focus group were wearing our red TII shirts, and Mike took us up to the third floor and administrative offices, which requires a staff key. We met in a conference room and we were given our assignments.

Waiting for the show

Crowds gathered to prepare for the show. I sat among them for the 9:30 show to catch the vibe and hear their reactions. It was a real party!

The Air and Space Museum is beginning a four-year renovation, the first complete overhaul since it opened in 1975. The west end military aircraft display is already closed off. Our job was to visit various displays and analyze them from an education perspective then meet back in the conference room in an hour and discuss ways that the exhibits can be redesigned for better effectiveness.

One of the exhibits we were to visit (far northeast corner of the museum) was closed off for TV interviews, so we went on to the Space Race exhibit which houses the Apollo-Soyuz display. The museum itself was quite busy but this exhibit was mostly deserted, with mostly adults looking at the artifacts or reading the text. The displays were mostly static, with only one video on display on a continuous loop on a video monitor. The video was mostly talking-head interviews of experts discussing the space race with some archival footage, but it was hard to see because of glare coming from the skylights. There was one QR code and a URL to hear an audio recording of John Grunsfeld repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, but otherwise there was no interactivity or multimedia beyond text, photos, and artifacts. It was very static, and the only teens or children who entered the exhibit quickly left again.


T minus 10 minutes and counting.

Which is too bad, because this is really an intrinsically interesting exhibit detailing the competition between the Soviets and the Americans in the 1960s and the increasing cooperation that came from Kissinger’s détente efforts in the 1970s culminating in the Apollo-Soyuz mission. I lived through these times and remember them well, and they were interesting to me. But the display did not engage me or the other visitors. There were elements that seemed out of place, just stuck in here to find some place to put them rather than part of an integrated design.

We were brought back up to the conference room and spent about 45 minutes talking with museum officials and sharing our opinions. We brought up that the exhibits needed more engagement and interactivity; perhaps something like the Spy museum with encoded badges and a space mission to fulfill might engage school children and adults more. When we mentioned the use of video walls, they said that each wall was $50,000 and they wondered if having actors portray historic figures would be accepted by patrons.

Launching the monument

The Washington Monument gets launched. With the large speaker stacks and video screens, it felt like I was actually there in Cape Canaveral for the launch of a Saturn V rocket. I was too young (nine years old) when the real Apollo 11 mission launched, but this was the next best thing.

I wonder if some sort of gamification of the experience might be effective – perhaps using augmented reality and VR goggles to tell a story that allows for a deeper dive and more choices by participants. This may be a topic for further research once I begin my doctoral program this fall.

It was 3:00 by the time we finished, and I had intended to stay downtown and walk over to George Washington University to see a presentation by Michael Collins of Apollo 11, John Logsdon of the National Research Council, and Ellen Stofan of the Smithsonian as I had already gotten a free ticket online. I was exhausted, and decided to skip the event. I found out later that Buzz Aldrin also showed up and joined the conversation, and I rather wish I had attended. But at the time I was too tired to consider it and I needed to rest my leg, get some supper, and lie down a while before I could approach the evening’s events. I headed back to the dorms at American University with other TII members.

It felt good to take off my red TII shirt (which is nylon and not good to wear on a highly humid D.C. summer afternoon) and put my feet up. I took a shower to cool off.

Go for the moon end

At the end of the show – a view back to the Moon as we look toward the future and a return there.

At about 7:00 I made my way via the shuttle and metro trains back to the Mall at the Smithsonian Stop. The displays were now shut up, so I walked toward the Capitol Building and got an ice cream cone at a truck. The sun had set and the hot air was finally cooling off. I took photos of the Capitol and the Washington Monument with magenta clouds behind.

As twilight came on people began to gather on the mall with blankets and picnic baskets. It reminded me of my first trip to Washington on the 4th of July, 1982 when I was starting my Washington Seminar program. I rode in with my roommates, having just arrived in town a day before. We sat on the steps of the Capitol facing toward the Lincoln Memorial and listened to a free concern by the National Orchestra and had a picnic of crackers and cheese. The Mall was covered with about a million people doing the same. When twilight came on, the orchestra struck up Stars and Stripes Forever and fireworks exploded over the reflecting pool. It was amazing.

Now I was back again for another amazing show, but this time everyone was facing toward the Washington Monument. As darkness fell, a shout went up as an image was projected onto the monument. It was the Saturn V rocket, ready to launch. Over the last few months, preparations had been made and a Joint Resolution of Congress passed allowing a national monument to be used for this purpose. Large speaker stacks had been erected along the mall and giant projection screens set up in front of the Smithsonian Castle, along with bleachers for a VIP section.

TIIs waiting for Moon show

TIIs and various VIPs waiting for the 10:30 show of Go For the Moon. We got tickets to the VIP bleachers and a great view of the program.

I walked up to the video walls and took photos of the countdown with 9:30 being set for the first show. I walked back to where I could have a good view and moved into the sea of people and sat down among them, hoping to catch the vibe and hear the reactions. The logo of Apollo 11 was displayed on the screens – the Eagle with an olive branch landing on the Moon without any names on it. A large clock counted down toward T-0, and with a few minutes to go the video program started: Kennedy giving his speech at Rice University; the building and testing of the rocket and spaceships; the technical challenges. Then, at T-0, the engines ignited and the projection showed the Saturn V rising slowly above the ground. It looked as if the entire monument was being launched, and the huge speakers thundered and shook the ground. It was the closest I could ever come to watching a Saturn V launch in person.

The program continued to show the detachment of the first and second stages, the third stage blasting the astronauts out of Earth orbit and on toward the Moon. It showed the CSM pull out, thrusters rotating it 180 degrees as it thrusted back to the third stage, docked with the Lunar Module, and pulled it free. It showed the long coast to the Moon, the firing of the CSM main retrorocket to slow down into orbit. Then the LM separated and fired its descent stage rocket to head down to the Moon and Tranquility Base. It showed the 12:01 and 12:02 overflow alarms, running low on fuel, and the landing. Neil and Buzz descended to the surface, and man was on the Moon.

TIIs waiting for show

Getting hyped up for the show.

After Neil and Buzz climbed back aboard, the Ascent stage blasting off and the remainder of the LM redocked with the CSM. Then we saw the return to Earth and the splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean and recovery by the U.S.S. Hornet.

The entire show was 17 minutes long, but it was stirring. All the people around me watched with bated breath even though it had been 50 years. They cheered at the landing as if they had lived then. I was nine years old, and I remember. The Deseret News published a series of stories today selected from submissions by people who were alive to see the original landing. I submitted my story of running home from Sacrament Meeting to tune in the old Zenith black and white TV with vacuum tubes to watch the astronauts climb down to the surface of the Moon. My story was published today, alongside stories by a man who listened to the landing as he returned from a bombing run over Vietnam and a man aboard the Hornet who saw the astronauts recovered and return, walking into the Receiving Lab. He saw Pres. Nixon get a photo opp.

As the crowd dispersed I walked down to the bleacher section and pulled out my printed pass for the VIP section. Now I would get to sit in the bleachers and see the show again from a better vantage point. I sat with other TIIs from both cohorts for the 10:30 show and we were all jazzed up. Some had seen the 9:30 show, some not. Other VIPs filled in around us. To my side were a bank of cameras recording the show. One VIP that showed up was Adam Savage from Mythbusters, who was here in the closed off exhibit building a replica of the Apollo escape hatch. He was wearing a tuxedo for the show, and I did see him and wonder who the poor person was wearing the tux in this punishing heat. I wouldn’t have survived the day without the metal water bottle Shannon has given us.

Screen shot 2019-10-06 at 6.55.52 PM

Our return to the Moon will be through one of two systems. This is an artist’s concept of the Space Launch System with Orion capsule, being built by NASA to build first the Gateway platform in cis-Lunar space, then send astronauts back to the moon through the Artemis program.

As the T-0 time again approached I readied my camera and set it for video. This time I recorded most of the presentation. So did all the people standing before us – all I could see was a sea of glowing electronic screens.

It was even better the second time with this clearer view. We cheered and shouted. My water bottle fell off the bleachers, along with some others, and one of the museum staff was kind enough to crawl under and pull it out after the program was over and we began to disperse.

Screen shot 2019-10-06 at 6.54.50 PM

The Space Launch System on its way into space. The first test launch will be in 2021 – hopefully.

I walked with some other TIIs to the Smithsonian Metro station and rode back to Tenleytown. We found a bus back to the dorms from there and got to sleep late. It had been a long but fulfilling day, and tomorrow will be even more memorable.

I hope that the excitement and cheers and celebration I saw from hundreds of thousands of people tonight can be harnessed for our return to the Moon in the next few years. We are finally getting close again. I have waited a long time since we last visited the Moon or even sent men into deep space, last done in 1972. With recent tests of the SpaceX Starhopper prototype and pending tests of the full Spaceship system and NASA’s Space Launch System, we will finally have two rocket systems capable of sending humans back to the Moon. It will happen within the next five years, if the Artemis program can stay on track, or less if Elon Musk has his way. I hope to see it – to be alive through both the first and second (and continuing) set of missions to the Moon. I hope to see the first humans set foot on Mars. Tonight, for the first time in 50 years, I felt that it was possible.

Screen shot 2019-10-06 at 6.43.37 PM

Artist’s drawing of the Starship spacecraft detaching from the Super Heavy booster, a launch system being built and tested by SpaceX. It seems to me to be even odds as to which system makes it to the Moon first, and I expect Starship to make it to Mars first because Space X has the momentum that NASA lost in the 1970s and is still trying to recapture.

About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, Earth science, physics, biology, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science in Utah. I've won numerous awards as an educator and am a frequent presenter at state and national educator conferences. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador. I learned of the Indonesian education system and taught classes in astronomy and chemistry at a high school near Banjarmasin in southern Borneo. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. This Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project ( will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s