When Gina Ross was a young girl, she watched on television as U.S. astronauts landed on the moon, a sight that electrified her and left an impression that has endured for decades in her career as an educator.
Ross became the founding principal of Aldrin Elementary School in 1994, lobbying hard to have the school in Reston, Va., named for Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut who was the second man to step foot on the moon.
“I was very much into the space program,” said Ross, who has since retired. “When you delve into space and science, it opens up a whole new world for the children.”
Ross hoped that the school would raise a new generation of astronauts, though the nation’s space program has been curtailed significantly since its heyday. She thought that naming the school for Aldrin might inspire students in the same way he had for a generation of youths who pursued science and engineering.
That curiosity — and awe — was on the faces of students who gathered around Aldrin on Monday as he visited the school to celebrate its 20th year. After he spoke to students, they peppered him with questions and advised him on how to parachute out of a spacecraft. (“Push the button!”)
The gravelly voiced Aldrin, 85, still has broad shoulders, but he effuses grandfatherly warmth around children. He wears a necklace with beads that spell out his name and a watch with two faces — one for the East Coast and one for the West. On Monday, he donned a colorful tie bearing the medallions of various space missions.
“How did you get home from the moon alive?” one boy asked.
“You’re smart!” Aldrin exclaimed, leaning down to talk to the boy face-to-face. “We had a lot of help.”
“Did you eat ice cream out there?” a girl asked.
“You mean that fake stuff?” Aldrin replied. “No ice cream, no. Just hot coffee.”
And he went on.
“We slept a little bit. No beds. We would float around and hit our heads on the ceiling,” he joked. The children giggled.
Aldrin has dedicated himself to several causes during his semi-retirement, among them lobbying NASA to develop a plan for a manned mission to Mars. But education remains close to his heart. He started a nonprofit to bolster science and engineering education and has written children’s books. He worries that children who have a fascination with science and science fiction at a young age will lose it later.
“Second grade, third grade: ‘Star Trek.’ Then they grow out of that,” he said.
Speaking in the school’s cafeteria Monday afternoon, Aldrin waved at students and beamed as they sang “Aldrin, Aldrin,” the school anthem set to the tune of “Ode to Joy.”
He talked a little bit about his journey to space, which began when he was a schoolboy in New Jersey, where as a sixth-grader he played the Wizard of Oz in a play.
“You’re going to leave here, and you’re going to remember your teachers,” Aldrin said. “I hope you will because they have given a little bit of their lives for your education. Without education, doors won’t open for you.
“How does a little kid grow up a towhead and have a school named after him? What’s the last line of your song?” Aldrin asked, referencing the school anthem. “No dream is too high for —”
“You!” the crowd of students shouted in unison.