"ALL MY LIFE I've wanted the moon," a young man muses on the morning of July 16, 1969, the day of the liftoff of Apollo 11, the mission that would put a man on the moon.
So opens "Apollo: To the Moon," a one-man show featuring Kevin Reese that will be performed Sunday as part of Community Day at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
Reese and his wife, Mary Hall Surface -- she wrote and directed the show -- originally came up with the idea on a visit to the National Air and Space Museum. They had been guest artists at the Kennedy Center for five years, mostly in its Theatre for Young Audiences, and wanted to develop a show of their own.
"We knew we wanted to develop a piece of theater for young audiences that was very accurate historically," said Reese. "So we went down to the museums on the Mall looking for an idea. When we went to the Air and Space Museum, we looked at all the kids there, and then at the dates on the exhibits, and back to the kids, and realized that, to most of them, the Apollo program was as much ancient history as covered wagons."
While doing research for the show, they found that the main memory of the space program for most schoolchildren was the Challenger disaster. "That's all kids knew," Reese said.
Determined to change that, the pair spent 11 months researching, writing and rewriting. The result is a captivating piece of educational theater for children and adults.
Before a backdrop of more than 100 slides from the NASA archives, Reese plays the roles of a young astronomer named Scott Gibson as well as key figures in the history of the space program such as NASA director James Webb, leading rocket scientist Werner von Braun and astronaut Gus Grissom.
The soundtrack is equally authentic and includes excerpts of a Christmas message broadcast by President Eisenhower via the first communications satellite and President John F. Kennedy's famous 1961 speech that signaled the beginning of the Apollo era: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and retruning him safely to earth."
After opening with the Apollo 11 liftoff, the show goes back in time to 1958, when Gibson is a child. Bursting with enthusiasm about the future of space exploration, he begs his mother for a later bedtime so he can have more time to view the moon through his telescope.
As he goes on to college and graduate school, we follow a timeline that is interspersed with news updates on the events that shaped the '60s and the progress of the race for the moon.
It is a presentation that can both open childrens' eyes (it is recommended for 9-year-olds and up) to the pioneers of manned spaceflight and take their parents back to relive the tumultuous decade in which they grew up.
"Our most common reaction from kids is 'That was a great show'," said Reese, "and the most common reaction from their parents is 'That was my life.' "
Surface says a family audience is their favorite. "The sharing that goes on between children and parents during and after the show is incredible. After the show, we encourage the kids to talk to their parents or teachers about where they were when Kennedy was shot, or when Apollo 11 lifted off. Then you see the kids just look in awe at the adults, as if they can hardly believe they were alive way back then."
We follow Gibson through the joys and sorrows of his quest to reach the moon. In the early '60s, Gibson writes his sister, "Today I dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but it was just a dream. You see, you've got to be a test pilot just to be considered. So I've decided to devote every ounce of my strength to becoming the greatest astronomer in the country. I'll still be a part of the space program; I'll just be on the ground. But give me 10 years, I'll be the one with the star maps that'll get those test pilot astronauts to the moon."
When NASA decides to recruit scientist astronauts, Gibson is overjoyed. "I've been on the team," he shouts, "but now I'm coming off the bench."
The joy is followed by sorrow, when a fire during a test for Apollo 1 kills three astronauts inside the capsule on the launch pad. Nonetheless, despite his family's fears for his safety, Gibson submits his application.
It would spoil the story to reveal whether the astronomer makes it to the moon or not, but young audiences should leave "Apollo: To the Moon" inspired to work hard toward their goals.
"We wanted to create an Everyman," said Surface, "one that kids could look at and say 'That could be me.' We wanted to show them what you can do if you believe in your abilities. Anything that encourages a child to commit to pursuing their dreams is so important."
One career NASA employee who did pursue his dreams wrote Reese and Surface after he saw the show: "If one of the goals of your production is to speak for the thousands of men and women in the space program more eloquently than we can, then it is a stunning success."
APOLLO: TO THE MOON -- Free shows at 11 and 1 Sunday in Building 3 of the Goddard Space Flight Center, off Soil Conservation Road in Greenbelt. Check in first at the visitors center; 150 seats available per performance. (Take Beltway Exit 22 onto Greenbelt Road and turn left on Soil Conservation Road). Call 286-8981. Also at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 27 in the Albert Einstein Planetarium of the National Air and Space Museum, Sixth and Independence SW. Free; call 357-2700.
GODDARD COMMUNITY DAY will be held Sunday from 10 to 4 at the Space Flight Center's visitors center. NASA facilities normally closed to the general public will be open for tours, including the Nascom Division Center and the Spacecraft Systems Development and Integration Facility. The latter facility is one of the largest "clean rooms" in the world, with an 86,000-square-foot contamination-free environment used to build large payloads. Model rocket launches, international ham radio demonstrations and musical entertainment are also scheduled. Free; call 286-8981.
Suzanne Tobin, mother of an aspiring astronaut, last wrote for Weekend about a local clogging group.