The other day, I took my nine-year-old son to see a true American hero: Buzz Aldrin, the second human to set foot on the Moon. Mr. Aldrin was signing his new book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, at the local Barnes and Noble. After we waited patiently in line for a couple hours with a jovial crowd of space enthusiasts, Buzz signed his book for us and we asked if he had any advice for my son if he wanted to be an astronaut. Buzz looked slightly puzzled at first, then stared deep into my boy's eyes: "Finish school."
That's it. "Finish school." And then he was signing the next book, and continued signing for probably two more hours judging by the size of the crowd. Excellent advice for the youth of today. My son -- who in my mind has barely started school -- took it to heart that he should spend years in school, study hard and finish with a PhD like Buzz. But like Benjamin Braddock contemplating the true meaning of "plastics," we swirled Buzz's simple declarative in our minds searching for some greater cosmic meaning.
"Finish school." Could he have meant to just finish the fourth grade now and then join up with NASA's secret 12-and-under astronautics program this summer? Maybe Buzz knows of the government protocol to test the next generation of spaceships on children, rather than those precious endangered chimpanzees (damn you, Jane Goodall!). Besides, everyone knows that videogame-raised kids have better hand-eye coordination than Air Force test pilots, they enjoy fitting into small compartments and they're excited about using high-suction toilets in space. Buzz, after all, didn't say "stay" in school. Merely to finish it. Just look: He didn't even dot his "i" in "Aldrin" when he signed our book. Sure, he "claims" to have gone to MIT, but maybe he never made it to fifth grade?
But more cryptically, what if we heard him wrong? Perhaps instead of "finish school" he had actually said "Finnish School." Aha! Does Buzz know something we don't know about the future of human space exploration? Is he so disillusioned with the United States' meandering vision (an underlying theme of his book) that he has more confidence in Finland's burgeoning space program? If Helsinki is the next Cape Canaveral, should my son be going to a Finnish language immersion school to prepare himself for years of pickled herring in space?
Or was it shorthand for the famous Finnish School of Watchmaking (or Kelloseppäkoulu, as it's known locally in Tapiola), which is giving Switzerland a run for its money in the watchmaking business? Everyone knows that space missions rely on precise time keeping, so maybe learning a little watchmaking is a good skill to have a million miles from earth when your Timex stops ticking. And if Einstein's right about the whole space-time continuum thing, while all the other astronauts spend years in school studying space, maybe a superior knowledge of time is really the way to go. At 83, Buzz looks his age, but what if he's got a spry 39-year-old twin still out in space, who's relying on a Finnish-made pocket watch?
Then again "Finnish school" could be a sly reference to Iron Sky, the brilliant Finnish movie that speculated that Nazis were living on the dark side of the Moon. Everyone assumed the movie was fiction, but Buzz has been there. If there were Nazis on the moon, he'd be the one to know it. Maybe the devious Finns actually made a documentary, and Buzz's enigmatic phrase was a clue to the real truth about Nazis on the moon, and their impending invasion of earth. Buzz had several burly handlers around him -- maybe this was a desparate cry for help, and we let him down?
One other possible interpretation was that we misheard "finish school" and he actually said "finishing school." Buzz's book is, after all, primarily about his long-term vision to send astronauts to Mars. But again, maybe he knows more than he's comfortable saying in public. What if Buzz somehow knows the Martians are sticklers for manners? If my son wants to be among the first humans to visit, he will need to be exceptionally polite and know which spoon to use for soup, lest he accidentally set off an interplanetary war. If nothing else, you never know when you're going to get invited to a state dinner at the White House. Good manners can't hurt, even in space.
So like all good heroes, Buzz Aldrin has inspired us in ways that even he probably could not have predicted. My son now has a personal connection to one of the last men who ever covered the Earth with his thumb, and felt the gentle tug of the moon's gravity on his boots. Even if he has to learn Finnish and start eating reindeer steak and lingonberries, those are the sacrifices he and the next generation of Mars-bound astronauts may have to make.