As boys, they wanted to be Neil Armstrong. As adults, they still do.
On Sunday, many dads, with sons in tow, came to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center for an amateur model rocket contest. It was a way of sharing with a younger generation the wonder they felt when Apollo 11 rocketed to the moon 30 years ago this week.
"This makes me feel like a kid again," said Phil Joyce, 43, of Arlington, who brought his 7-year-old son, Christopher, to the event attended mostly by boy rocketeers and their fathers. "Brings it all back," he said.
The moon lore, though, got a tepid response from the younger set, who said they see space travel as an everyday occurrence. They were mostly intent on launching their model rockets to see whose could go the highest.
A rocket-launching event is held monthly at Goddard, where bright plastic rockets from a few inches to about three feet tall are ignited and then sent whizzing skyward one at a time before floating gently down with the help of tiny plastic parachutes. Each year in July, the club holds a special contest to mark the first exploration of the moon. This year, the contest fell within days of the 30th anniversary of the first moon walk.
"It is one of those events from childhood that makes you think about what is possible," Joyce said, "and see that what exists out there in the universe is not bounded by what we know." He was 13 when Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind.
Alan Williams, 47, of Bowie, who helps organize the monthly events at Goddard and uses a microphone to count down each launch, said that as a teenager, he walked outside to look at the moon when Armstrong took his first steps.
"I went outside to listen to what the world was doing and to look up," he said. "It was so quiet . . . and I looked at the moon and thought, 'Oh, that's cool.' "
While Apollo rockets had more oomph, the more than 150 rockets launched on Sunday all fly the same way that the big rockets do, with the same aerodynamic principles, Williams said. Of those competing in junior and adult heats, several shot up more than 500 feet--higher than the Washington Monument.
Others, though, whirled around sideways, landing in trees. Some quickly plunging rockets sent the crowd of about 200 scattering away from the grassy area after parachutes failed to deploy. When the launches were over, about two dozen trophies were handed out.
Although the Goddard gathering is billed as a children's affair, adults were as set on winning as the United States was on getting to the moon before the Soviets.
"For rocketry, you have to have that fighting spirit," said Williams, who has been playing with rockets for more than 30 years himself. "No man is free who has seen the fire and smelled the smoke."
The adults were equally serious about their moon mythology, offering up classic examples: Shakespeare called the moon a "silver bow," ancient Greeks and Romans named some of their most powerful gods after it, the poet Shelley described it as the "orbed maiden," and people in love are sometimes said to be "moonstruck."
"And, of course, there is always the man in the moon," Williams said.
For the children, the universe is a different place.
"I think the moon, Mars and the next solar system is as far away as San Francisco is to my son," said Dennis Mateik, 44, of Bowie, who brought his 8-year-old son, Alex. "It is more accessible to them. It doesn't hold the same surprise."
In fact, Alex described the solar system as at close range.
"If I were a giant and the planets were like beach balls, you could stick out your finger right into Jupiter to feel what it feels like," Alex said. "It is all made out of gas and stuff."
Other children said they would prefer the sun, Pluto and the edges of the universe to the moon.
"I know [Armstrong] said it was a big step . . . or a giant leap for whatever," said 7-year-old Taylor Richard, of Arlington. "I think the moon would be cold."
CAPTION: Gordon Sommers, 10, of Kensington, hooks up the ignition wires to his Saturn 5 model rocket before the model rocket contest at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. This year, the contest, which is held every July, fell within days of the 30th anniversary of the moon landing.
CAPTION: Michael Holzer, Andrew Dickinson and Chris Dickinson prepare for blastoff.