Rock and roll with it
Surprised Rice student accepts moon rock awarded to JFK
Jones College senior Max Paul had read about the 40th anniversary of man's landing on the moon with interest Monday morning.
What he didn't know was that evening he'd be celebrating the event with the Apollo 11 crew.
With legendary astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins standing to his left and new NASA administrator Charles Bolden to his right, Paul accepted a gift on behalf of Rice University from the niece of President John F. Kennedy during an anniversary bash at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The gift was a moon rock -- a real, authentic moon rock -- given to Rice by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and daughter of Robert Kennedy, on behalf of her uncle, JFK. It represented one of NASA's highest honors, the Ambassador of Exploration Award, given to individuals who have contributed to the realization of America's goal of landing a man on the moon.
NASA, which has honored veterans and friends of the space program for many years, gave the award to JFK, since it was his directive that sent the United States to the moon. One caveat is that the award that contains the rock remains the property of NASA, and honorees are asked to select an educational institution or museum where it can be displayed and appreciated by all.
This is where Rice comes in and where luck trumps planning.
The call to Paul came at 5:30 p.m. Monday, a mere two-and-a-half hours before the event for a packed house of 2,000 invited guests and not too long after someone realized the original intended recipient already had a moon rock.
"My friend (Jones College senior) Danny Newman, who works in the Rice government office, called, and then his boss talked to me," said the low-key Paul, an electrical engineering student interning at Washington consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton this summer. "They needed someone to accept for Rice that night, and quick.
"I figured these kinds of things happen in D.C. a lot, but I didn't think it was going to happen that soon," he said, delivering an understatement to beat all.
The young man from St. Louis kept his cool, put his suit jacket back on and made his way to the museum, where the presentation went off without a hitch.
He assumed it was Townsend's idea to send the valuable prize Rice's way. "She told me it made the most sense," Paul said, noting that a video of JFK's famous 1962 speech at Rice was part of the ceremony.
He characterized Townsend as "very nice, a very fun person" and said he got a few minutes to talk to the Apollo 11 crew. "I asked them how it was, and they said it was an amazing experience that they'll never forget. They seemed very energetic and happy about the event."
The chunk of moon is part of the 842 pounds of samples brought back to Earth during the six Apollo lunar expeditions from 1969 to 1972. "It was a rock inside of Lucite," Paul said of the award. "I got to hold it for a second and then I put it down on the stand and the folks from NASA took it."
It will eventually find its way to the campus. A NASA official said the agency hopes to hold a presentation at Rice in the very near future.