Father Knows Best?

When Andrei Hardy, 12, asked his dad, Doug, about the heat shield on a Mercury capsule at the National Air and Space Museum, the elder Hardy incorrectly told him that it was steel. Like some fathers, the Bostonian has made up facts when he hasn't known an answer about an exhibit.
When Andrei Hardy, 12, asked his dad, Doug, about the heat shield on a Mercury capsule at the National Air and Space Museum, the elder Hardy incorrectly told him that it was steel. Like some fathers, the Bostonian has made up facts when he hasn't known an answer about an exhibit. (Photos By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007

Doug Hardy was barely inside the door of the National Air and Space Museum when he made up his first "fact."

On a sunny morning a few days before Father's Day, Hardy and his son Andrei were huddled under the Mercury capsule. Like countless dads before him, he was explaining rocket science to his boy, in this case how the mottled heat shield protected John Glenn from a fiery death as the craft plunged through the atmosphere.

Then Andrei, 12, asked: What are these dark disks made of?

Again, like countless dads before him, Hardy answered confidently -- even though he didn't have a clue.

"Steel," he said.

(The shield is actually made from a plastic-fiberglass composite, said Michael Neufeld, chairman of the museum's space history division. The disks are plugs left over from post-flight analysis.)

If it didn't occur to Hardy to say, "I don't know," he's not alone. The phenomenon of the "know-it-all dad" is a familiar one to the docents, curators and keepers of America's museums and zoos.

"Just about every time I'm on the floor, I hear a father say something incorrect to his kids," said Bobbe Dyke, who has been a docent and tour guide at Air and Space for 31 years. "You can't butt in and correct them in front of the kids. You just have to cringe."

Asked about the exchange a few minutes later, Hardy, a Boston-based writer, good-naturedly admitted his lack of metallurgical expertise. Further, he confessed to winging it factwise more than once during the museum-filled road trip with his son.

"Now that I think about it, I guess I make up stuff all the time," he said. Only a few days earlier, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Andrei had asked how bronze statues were made. Hardy finessed an explanation based on half-remembered notions of wax molds and plaster.

"It was a total BS moment," Hardy said. "But you've got to be the guy who has the answers, right? It's a habit. What should I say, that I'm 51 years old and I used to know this 20 years ago? That's not much of an answer."

Standing in the museum's entrance hall, Dyke can attach a bit of overheard blarney to just about every icon on display:


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