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1-25 August 2012

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NOTE: I hope visitors to this Web site will indulge me a moment and allow a personal note about someone who had a profound effect upon me as an educator and a scientist. I also hope no one will be disappointed a shorter version of the following photo essay was published on this Web site in 2003 when Space Shuttle Columbia failed. I was deeply saddened by that event and more so--for personal reasons--by this week's passing of Neil Armstrong, the quintessential astronaut and science-oriented engineer.


As I was preparing to post the current installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" on the morning of 1 February 2003, I got word there had been a problem as Space Shuttle Columbia (insignia below right for mission STS-107) made its final descent after 15 days in orbit. Like millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, I spent the next several hours glued to television, absorbing the day's events and mourning the loss of seven Israeli and American astronauts who died in the pursuit of scientific research.

As an educator-naturalist, I investigate flora and fauna around me on Planet Earth, but I have utmost respect for those who reach for the stars and explore the cosmos. As a tribute to these explorers and as an expression of my sadness over the latest shuttle disaster, I've opted to post the following article I wrote for The York Observer in Rock Hill SC in 1989 on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar expedition. It's a bit different from our usual nature essay from Hilton Pond Center, but I think you'll see the connection . . . .

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

ADDENDUM for 2012:
On 25 August I had just come in from a pleasant bicycle ride on a South Carolina back road when son Billy Hilton III greeted me with three words he knew would have serious impact: "Neil Armstrong died." Curiously, Billy got this news almost instantaneously in a very modern technological way--via Facebook from Dr. Rick Walker, who I first met 'way back in 1964 when he and I were both delegates to West Virginia's National Youth Science Camp. At the NYSC Rick and I were honored to meet and learn from Armstrong (then a young astronaut training for the first walk on the Moon) and we both had followed the man's career with awe and admiration for the past 48 years. Billy knew about all this and shared our respect for astronaut Armstrong--in part because Billy was himself a Science Camper in 1995.
The news of Armstrong's passing was shocking--we all had hoped the astronaut would return to West Virginia in 2013 for the camp's 50th anniversary celebration--but I was just plain sad to learn perhaps my greatest hero had taken the one final step from which he could never return. Neil Armstrong was brilliant, he was brave, he was modest to a fault, he was an educator-engineer, and he was without doubt the best choice NASA could have made for the first human to set foot on the lunar surface. Neil Armstrong truly was "the right stuff."

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center


BARTOW, WV--Today, 20 July 1989, is a special day in the history of the U.S. space program, and people around the world are recollecting where they were exactly 20 years ago in 1969 when Neil Armstrong made his first small step onto the surface of the Moon.

I, too, have been thinking about that event, but my own memories of Armstrong go back five more years to 1964. That summer I was privileged to be among 100 high school scientists from around the country--two from each state--picked by their governors to attend the National Youth Science Camp at Bartow, West Virginia.

The NYSC was begun in 1963 to celebrate West Virginia's Centennial; in the years since plenty of top-notch, big-name scientists have visited the Mountain State to speak to NYSC delegates. None, however, had as much an impact on me as did the future astronaut who lectured during my camper year.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Above photo © National Youth Science Camp

In July 1964 Neil Armstrong enthralled me and my fellow delegates with his presentation about futuristic plans for the Apollo manned mission to Earth's Moon. I distinctly remember him standing before us outside the camp's rustic lecture hall, precise in his delivery and majestic in his professionalism and military bearing.

When I close my eyes I can still trace an image he drew on the chalkboard (above)--a simple line drawing showing how the Apollo 11 module would need to fly a figure eight around Earth and Moon for a successful landing and eventual return trip. There Armstrong was--still five years away from his ever-famous Moonwalk--already explaining and studying and practicing the moves he would execute to bring his lunar lander down at Tranquility Base. Talk about advance planning!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Above photo © National Youth Science Camp

That evening aeronautical engineer Armstrong--despite appearing formal in a dress suit and tie (but no white socks or pocket protector!)--gathered at the campfire circle for an informal question and answer session with what I'll admit is a geeky-looking bunch of delegates (above). I'm relieved and pleased to say none of us just-graduated high school honor students--many wearing our coveted blue blazers with the radio telescope emblem--posed the query astronauts almost always get from younger audiences: "But how do you go to the bathroom in space?"

In the summer of 1969 I was back in West Virginia directing the NYSC's natural sciences program and on the final day of camp traveled to Charleston WV with delegates and other staph [sic; it's a SCIENCE camp!] for the annual Farewell Banquet. During what was already an emotional time, camp director Chuck Cochran pulled from his vest pocket a Western Union telegram addressed to the current science campers. Imagine the goose bumps that filled the room as Chuck unfolded that yellow paper and read an almost-unbelievable message addressed to the 100 NYSC delegates--a message from three astronauts who would be blasting toward the moon in just five short days and who wrote: "We wish we had your future!"

Next morning everyone was still talking excitedly about the astronauts' telegram as we saw the campers to Charleston's airport for flights home. Staff then returned to Bartow to break camp and on 16 July at 9:32 a.m. gathered around the only available television set at a small rural motel several miles away. We cheered and clapped at the successful liftoff (above left) of the giant Saturn rocket that propelled Apollo 11 out of Earth's atmosphere, and after that it was just a matter of waiting for Neil Armstrong and his colleagues to make their three-day trip to the Moon.

Shortly after the successful rocket launch we closed camp for the season and I made a trip of my own back home to Rock Hill SC. A few evenings later on 20 July I joined my parents and siblings in the TV room to watch Armstrong exit the lunar lander (below right). Tears came to my eyes and a prideful lump filled my craw when I saw him make his first small footprint in dust that had never known a human's touch.

Last week I returned to Bartow to celebrate my 25th anniversary as an NYSC delegate and to deliver my own lecture to the 1989 National Youth Science Camp. With cold chills crawling up and down my spine, I tried to convey to the current crop of campers how exciting it had been to meet Neil Armstrong 25 years earlier and to talk with him about his plans to be the first man on the Moon. I was nearly speechless at using the very same chalkboard my favorite astronaut had used back in 1964.

Near the end of my talk, I wished the science campers success in their upcoming college careers, and then I showed them an Earthrise photograph Armstrong's crew had taken from the Moon. My point was that Neil Armstrong and all the other astronauts and cosmonauts have a unique perspective that none of the rest of us can really know. They have seen the "little blue marble" called Earth hanging in the immense black void of space. From a quarter million miles away they have scanned our wispy clouds and our oceans and the continents of terra firma we walk upon each day. They understand, as can no others, how small a planet we inhabit, how delicate Spaceship Earth really is.

I closed my lecture with another wish: That every 1989 science camper--and every Earthling, for that matter--could do as astronaut Neil Armstrong did and view our tiny planet from afar.

  • Perhaps then we would all realize just how insignificant we are in this infinitely enormous universe.
  • Perhaps then we would face the reality that this fragile planet, its environment, and its occupants can take only so much abuse.
  • Perhaps then we could--with the same degree of confidence that Neil Armstrong showed in 1964--know what we will be doing five years into the future.
  • And perhaps then that "one small step by a man" could finally become mankind's giant leap for peace and friendship among all nations on this lovely, little Planet Earth.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969
(5 Aug 1930-25 Aug 2012)

"For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil,
[his family had] a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment, and modesty . . . and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the Moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Black-and-white photos of Neil Armstrong and telegram © National Youth Science Camp
Other photos © NASA

POSTSCRIPT for 2012: We need many more heroes like Neil Armstrong who can lead by example without divisiveness or ego, who spend less time defending their turf than expanding the reach of the human species. Farewell, Commander Armstrong. Those 1964 Science Campers will never forget you or your accomplishments. We'll ever remember you showed the world how grand science and technology can be when one allows facts and numbers and open-mindedness to triumph--and to override the frightening epidemic of anti-science and hubris and political turmoil that drags us down today. In the words of a national newspaper columnist, "We have traded the inspirational for the ideological"; alas, we are hurtling not toward the stars like Neil Armstrong and his kind but down a path of selfish mediocrity that serves no one well.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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1-25 August 2012

Ruby-throated Hummingbird-66
American Goldfinch--5
Carolina Chickadee--2
House Finch--40

* = New species for 2012

4 species
113 individuals

27 species

706 individuals
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 171 species have been observed on or over the property)
126 species (31-yr avg = 66.5)
57,794 individuals
(31-yr avg = 1,865)

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
American Goldfinch (1)
03/15/11--3rd year male

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

--So far in August at Hilton Pond Center, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds continue to enter our traps in near-record numbers. As of the 25th we had banded 134 RTHU, well ahead of our average of 99 by that date. In fact, as of this week 2012 is the third best banding year since 1984 with our anticipated influx of migrant immature ruby-throats yet to come. Can't wait!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(spring female at right)

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research, conservation & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Web site contents--including text and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To request permission for use or for further assistance, please contact Webmaster.

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