Stories about people who have their eyes on the stars, from a street-corner astronomer to an astronaut.
Originally released November 2, 2015 and rebroadcast August 15, 2017.
Stories about people who have their eyes on the stars, from a street-corner astronomer to an astronaut.
Originally released November 2, 2015 and rebroadcast August 15, 2017.
StoryCorps 439: Space Men
Michael Garofalo (MG): This is the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo. And in this episode, men from outer space. Well, sort of.
Judge Joe Pigott (JJP): I had an unusual step-grandfather, who was a country doctor with emphasis on country. And he had no sense of humor, whatsoever, especially when it involved himself.
MG: That’s Judge Joe Pigott. We’ve heard from him before on this podcast telling a different story. But this one takes place on Halloween in 1938.
JJP: The doctors’ only recreation was listening to the radio. When he was listening to the radio, you just did not make a sound, especially when the news was on. Well, in 1938, on Mercury Theatre, on the radio, Orson Welles announced that men from Mars had landed in New Jersey.
Orson Welles: Those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.
JJP: And since it was New Jersey and I had an uncle in New Jersey, they thought, ’Well, there he goes.’ And the program kept telling about that they were coming in this direction and so the doctor told his wife, ’Let’s get in the car and go over to my brother’s house, so we can all be together when the end comes.’
So they got in his Chevrolet automobile, and drove around to his brother’s house and they began talking about how it was the end of the world and they began confessing to each other and repenting of their sins. And the more they talked, the madder they got at each other. But along about 11 o’clock that night, one young skeptic went back into the house and turned on the radio, and he heard on the news that it was just a drama on Mercury Theatre.
Radio Announcer: …Are the result of a studio dramatization.
JJP: Well, he walked back out into the yard where they were confessing, and he waited a few minutes before he told them that it was just a big hoax. Doctor and his wife were convinced that there must have been something to it, because they had smelled, on the way over there, this rubber burning. And they figured that was the sound of it. They later found out he had driven all the way over there with the emergency brake on. Anyway, they drove back home without the doctor saying a word. This story was told over and over within the family, but Doctor never saw any humor to it at all and would get up and leave in a huff any time anyone began to repeat it.
Radio Announcer: Tonight the Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations coast to coast has brought you the War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The seventeenth in his weekly series of dramatic broadcasts featuring Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the air.
MG: Now let’s hear from some actual bonafide star men. I’m serious! This is not a hoax.
We’ll start with Baltimore street corner astronomer and self-described ”star hustler.” His name is Herman Heyn. If you head down to the Fells Point section of Baltimore on a clear night, you’ll find him and his telescope there. Herman calling passersby over to take a look at Saturn’s rings or the moon. It’s free to look, though he does accept tips, which has helped him earn a modest living for decades. And when he came to StoryCorps, he was interviewed by his nephew, John.
John Heyn (JH): Uncle Herman, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Herman Heyn (HH): I wanted to be a scientist, but I have certain kinds of learning disabilities. My mother used to say, ”You can spell Andromeda but you can’t spell anything they want you to do in school. I don’t know, some people like trees, some people like birds. For me, it was stars. [laughs]
JH: How long have you been doing street corner astronomy?
HH: I just finished my 27th year. I’ve been out on the street 2,637 times. It’s like being on a Broadway show that has a long run.
I had been working for quote unquote The Man — for many, many years – unsuccessfully. Each time I’d start a new job I’d say, ”I’m going to stay with it, get benefits, get retirement.” But three years later I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get out of there and got another job. And Friday night—November 13th, 1987. It was a really beautiful evening, the moon was up. And I decided, Heck, I’m going to take my telescope on the street, and invite people to look at the moon and Jupiter. And as I was walking out the door I said, ”I’ll take a hat with me and see what happens.” That first night I made $10. And I went back the next night and made $40, and that’s how it started.
Back in 1997, a local writer wrote about my being a ”star hustler” on the street. One of the questions was, ”How did you get started in astronomy?” and I said, “Miss Wicker’s class in the eighth grade.” She drew the Big Dipper on the blackboard. Said, “Go find it.” I didn’t know if Miss Wicker was dead or alive. But she saw the article and called me up. And I was one of the eulogizers at her funeral.
JH: How would you like to be remembered?
HH: I don’t want to be remembered — Halley’s Comet comes back in 2061 and I want to be around.
But I could name people who have looked through my telescope and taken up astronomy themselves, bought their own telescopes. Somebody else said they’ve named a boat “Saturn” after looking at it through my telescope. It makes me feel it’s worthwhile, what I’m doing. That I’m doing a good thing.
And over the years, I’ve been hoping that somebody would come along and say, ”I got my Ph.D. in astronomy having first looked through your telescope”—but it hasn’t happened [Laughs]…yet. I’m hoping it still may.
[MUSIC – “Starman” by David Bowie ]
MG: That’s Herman Heyn in Baltimore, MA. When we put this story on radio, a lot of people commented that they had met Herman and looked through his telescope. And while no one said that they got their PhD because of him, one commenter, who’s registered on the NPR site as ”Dusty McDuff,” had this to say:
MG: ”I met Mr. Heyn several times during my college years while I was working at bars in Fells Point. I often stopped on my way to work and look at the planets. I hope he reads through these comments, because I’ve always wanted to thank him. He wasn’t the sole reason I went on to become a test pilot in the military, but he certainly added to my love of the sky. He’ll be glad to know that this Christmas, I’m getting a twelve-inch Orion Dobson telescope for my family and that is because of him.”
MG: Okay, now from the streets of Baltimore, let’s head deep into the North Woods of Wisconsin. Roughly, 230 miles north of Milwaukee down a winding dirt road sits the world’s largest rotating globe planetarium. What is that? What’s a rotating globe planetarium? Well, most planetariums, you sit there and the stars are projected on the ceiling, right? Well, in a rotating globe planetarium, you sit beneath a giant dome that has the stars painted on it and the dome itself, through some mechanical process moves around you. So you get to see how the sky changes over the course of the night. Well, there’s only been four of these ever built that we know about, and the oldest dates back nearly 400 years. But this one, the one in the woods in Wisconsin, was built by Frank Kovac, and the project took nearly a decade to complete. At StoryCorps, Frank sat down and talked about his life-long fascination with the stars.
Frank Kovac (FK): My name is Frank Kovac, and I built my own planetarium in my backyard.
As a child, my dad had a small telescope, and I asked him if we could take it outside and look at the sky. And he said, ”Sure, we’ll go look at the moon.” From that day forward I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I was always terrible at math, so I worked as a storeroom department clerk at the local paper mill.
And then in the year 1995, I did a presentation at a local town hall. A group of Boy Scouts wanted to come out and look through the telescopes that I have. It turned out to be a cloudy night, and I thought I’m going to fix that. I’m going to build a planetarium so we can never cloud out the stars.
My neighbors, they were asking me, ”How are you going to do it without any knowledge of engineering?” And I says, ”Well, I just have an idea. In my mind I can envision this before I even built it.”
My planetarium is about 22 feet in diameter. The globe itself weighs approximately 4,000 pounds. And when I turn on the motor, it rotates around the audience replicating the night’s sky.
Every single star is painted with glow-in-the-dark paint. About 5,000 dots. One dot at a time. And it took me about five months to get every single constellation you see in the Northern Hemisphere.
My first show I had just two people come. And I was a little nervous because I was a very shy person. I did terrible. I stuttered too much. But nobody complained and now I never tire of giving a show. I almost feel like it’s always my first one.
My dad passed away about the year I started to build the planetarium. There were days I kind of wondered if I was even going to make this thing work. And you wonder why am I doing this? And I felt that my dad was there watching over me. You know, I don’t think I have the knowledge to build a planetarium, and here it is. The dream come true.
MG: That’s Frank Kovac in Monaco, Wisconsin. Now, I’ve been to his planetarium and whatever you imagine that it’s like, I can assure you it’s even better than that. It’s astonishing that he built this thing on his own. And the pure joy that he brings to his shows is contagious. If you make the trek, which I think you should, ask for a laser light show. He does it with an old turntable, laser pointers and salt shakers. I can’t really explain how, but it’s amazing.
MG: So we heard about true believers in alien life and a couple of guys who can’t keep their eyes off the stars. Now, let’s hear from some people who took things further, people who weren’t content just to look. As a teenager, Alton Yates did a job that helps send people into space. It was the mid-1950s, before NASA existed, and Yates was part of a small group of air force volunteers who tested the effects of high speeds on the body, and these experiments helped prove that space travel was safe for humans. So Alton Yates and the other volunteers were strapped to these rocket propelled sleds that hurdled down a track at more than 600 miles per hour, and then stopped in a matter of seconds. Now, Alton Yates came to StoryCorps with his daughter, Toni, and he told her that the story that eventually leads to people going into space started for him in high school, shortly after his mother died.
Alton Yates (AY): My dad was trying to raise the seven of us by himself. And I knew that as soon as I finished high school I was going to have to help with taking care of the family.
Toni Yates (TY): How did you know he needed your help?
AY: Well he came home from work, and he rolled cigarettes and he roasted peanuts and he put them in little bags. And then he left home immediately to sell those products. And I just couldn’t stand to see him continue to do that. There weren’t any good paying jobs just out of high school so I decided to join the Air Force. And the call had gone out for volunteers to determine the effects of space travel on the human body. So I became one of the human guinea pigs who rode high speed rocket sleds.
TY: How old were you when you did the first test?
AY: I was 19. And when the sled took off, it was almost as if everything in your body was being forced out through your back. And then when it stopped, it was like driving an automobile at a hundred miles an hour and running into a stone wall.
TY: But yet you did that 65 times?
AY: I did it more than 65 times. And let me tell you, there was something about the group of volunteers we had out there. I remember one, when they took him off the sled he was like a dish rag. The rest of us saw what happened to him but we were anxious to get strapped in to that seat to conduct the next experiment. We went up to Johnsville, Pennsylvania. They had a huge centrifuge up there. We rode that thing at high speeds. You had your hand on a little trigger and the minute you started to black out, your hand would come off the trigger and that would stop the centrifuge.
TY: Did your dad know what you were doing? (Laughs)
AY: He didn’t know initially, but Ebony magazine published an article that showed pictures of some of these rocket sleds that I had been riding. When my dad got a copy of that magazine, he took that thing everywhere he went. And I think just to make my father proud of me was something that I always wanted to do. And I was able to do that before he passed away.
TY: The day that man went into space, what was that like for you?
AY: I felt a warmth come over my body when I heard the countdown. And even to this day, every time there’s a liftoff, I think a little piece of me lifts off with each of those missions.
MG: That’s Alton Yates with his daughter, Toni, in Jacksonville, FL.
Without Alton Yates, this next story might have never happened. It’s about an astronaut, Dr. Ronald McNair, who was only the second African American to visit space. Tragically, he was also one of the seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded just seconds after lift off on January 28, 1986. McNair was a graduate of MIT who had grown up in the small farming community of Lake City, SC. Now we’re going to hear from his brother, Carl, who talks about how Ronald’s journey from the rural south to outer space began with an act of courage at the local public library.
Carl McNair (CM): When he was nine years old, Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library, which was, of course, a public library, but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959.
Vernon Skipper (VS): Ok.
CM: So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him — because they were white folk only — and they were looking at him and saying, you know, ”Who is this negro?”
CM: So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books. Well, this old librarian, she says, ”This library is not for coloreds.” He said, ”Well, I would like to check out these books.” She says, ”Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m gonna call the police.” So he just propped himself up on the counter and sat there and said, ”I’ll wait.”
So she called the police and subsequently called my mother. Police came down — two burly guys come in and say, “Well, where’s the disturbance?”
And she pointed to the little nine-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. And he [the policeman] says, “Ma’am, what’s the problem?” So, my mother — in the meanwhile she was called — she comes down there praying the whole way there, ”Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail.”
And my mother asks the librarian, “What’s the problem?” “He wanted to check out the books and, you know, your son shouldn’t be down here.” And the police officer said, ”You know, why don’t you just give the kid the books?”
And my mother said, ”He’ll take good care of them.” And reluctantly, the librarian gave Ron the books. And my mother said, ”What do you say?” He said, ”Thank you, ma’am.” [Laughter]
Later on, as youngsters, a show came on TV called Star Trek. Now Star Trek showed the future where there were black folk and white folk working together.
CM: And, I just looked at it as science fiction cause that wasn’t going to happen, really. But Ronald saw it as science possibility. You know, he came up during a time when there was Neil Armstrong and all of those guys. So how was a colored boy from South Carolina, wearing glasses, never flew a plane, how was he gonna become an astronaut? But Ron was someone who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm, you know? That was for other people. And, um, he got to be aboard his own Starship Enterprise.
MG: That’s Carl McNair remembering his brother, Dr. Ronald McNair, one of the astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
We made an animated film out of that story, it’s called ”Eyes on the Stars.” You can see it on our website, StoryCorps dot org. While you’re there, sign up for your own interview, listen to hundreds of other stories, find out how to download our app, which you can record a StoryCorps interview with and send it to the Library of Congress, just like any other StoryCorps interview. We’re going to use that app this Thanksgiving to do this huge project, called ”The Great Thanksgiving Listen.” Learn more on our website, StoryCorps dot org. That’s it for this episode of StoryCorps podcast. Until next time, keep your eyes on the stars. I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.
In this Veterans Day episode of the StoryCorps podcast, stories about Vietnam War veterans, and the battles they fought overseas and at home.
Announcing the launch of a new project from StoryCorps: an effort to get people who disagree about politics to get to know each other through a StoryCorps interview.
For Halloween, we hear from people for whom the stuff of other people's nightmares is just everyday business.