Anisha Abraham was just an infant in November 1969 when her parents and her grandmother took a detour from their planned road trip to visit the small Ohio town of Wapakoneta.
Neil Armstrong had taken his one small step for humankind just a few months earlier, but already his hometown had posted signs announcing Wapakoneta as the place where the then-39-year-old Apollo 11 commander had grown up. Abraham’s grandmother Elizabeth George spotted one of these signs and suggested that the birthplace of the first person to walk on the moon was worthy of a visit.
George had emigrated to the United States from India. On this day she and Anisha’s mother, Nirmala Abraham, were very likely the only people walking around the rural Ohio community dressed in saris. Anisha’s father might’ve protested to a not-easily-dissuaded George, who upon learning where Armstrong’s parents lived, took the pilgrimage one giant leap further and suggested they knock on the Armstrongs’ door to pay their respects.
Viola and Stephen Armstrong answered the door to these strangers and received them graciously. And then their son, who’d only just returned from a 38-day, 24-country goodwill tour with his Apollo 11 crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, came downstairs. A faded photograph records the visit.
Armstrong doesn’t appear in the snapshot because the astronaut is the one who took the picture. His mother, Viola, is holding baby Anisha, while George, the Abrahams and Stephen Armstrong are all posed together on the front porch.
The story of that day is the subject of the most recent episode of the National Air and Space Museum’s “AirSpace” podcast. Hosts Emily Martin and Matt Shindell speak with Anisha Abraham, now a pediatrician and author who lives in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and to her actor friend Jo Chim, who has written and directed a 30-minute film dramatizing that pivotal moment in Abraham family history called “One Small Visit.”
Abraham was too young the day her family met the Armstrongs to recall it firsthand, but she’s heard her relatives tell the story many times, and she’s seen that photograph of her infant self staring into the lens while her parents, her grandmother and the Armstrongs all smile warmly, if a bit awkwardly.
That story might’ve remained a juicy cut of family lore had Abraham not shared it with Chim, who was so moved by the tale of kindness among strangers—and of traditionally dressed Indian women getting a warm reception in the heartland—that she decided to make it into a movie, though she’d never written a screenplay before when she began working on the film in 2020.
Chim says she used artistic license to recreate the events of that afternoon more than 50 years ago, but tells Martin and Shindell that the Abrahams “read every draft,” and Anisha Abraham became a co-producer on the project.
For the Armstrong family’s side of the story, Chim had to rely on the public record. “I didn’t know who to reach out to,” she says.
The film that resulted has been warmly received in the relatively few places it’s been shown, including the L.A. Shorts International Film Festival; the D.C. South Asian Film Festival; and, perhaps most notably, at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. (It isn’t yet available on any streaming platform, though there is a website would-be viewers can check for announcements.)
It’s won the enthusiastic endorsement of Martin and Shindell, too, who responded favorably to the way Chim’s screenplay contextualizes the meeting of the Abrahams and the Armstrongs among all the social tumult of the era.
Chim tells them that the globetrotting tour from which Neil Armstrong had just returned on that day was key to her framing of the event. “And that to me was the unification moment, right?” Chim says. “A million people showed up in Bangladesh. Millions of people showed up in Tokyo or Mexico, and they went around the world. … The audience around the world really felt like it was a mission for all of us. … It wasn’t just for America.”
Elsewhere in the Smithsonian Pod-a-Verse
On the April 26 episode of “Sidedoor,” host Lizzie Peabody sits down for a delightful banter session with Bill Nye, the seminal figure from her elementary school years. Nye’s TV show “Bill Nye the Science Guy” ran in syndication from 1993 to 1998, winning 19 Emmy Awards for its fast-paced and funny approach to nurturing kids’ interest in the natural world.
Nye was working for Boeing as a mechanical engineer in Seattle in the late 1970s when he won a Steve Martin look-alike contest, which became his unlikely conduit into the world of stand-up comedy.
At some point he figured out he’d like to be the successor to Don “Mr. Wizard” Herbert, whose educational science show aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, then was revived in a flashier incarnation for the kiddie cable channel Nickelodeon from 1983 to 1989.
Nye quit his job at Boeing in 1986. His lab-coat-and-bow-tie-wearing persona of “The Science Guy” evolved out of his appearances on a popular Seattle radio show and on a local sketch-comedy program called “Almost Live!” (His powder-blue lab coat and his bow tie printed with the periodic table of the elements are on display in the exhibition “Entertainment Nation” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.) But as he tells Peabody, the distinction between his private and public selves is a slender one.
“I am passionate about science. I’m passionate about science education,” the now 67-year-old Nye says. “I mix vinegar and baking soda and inflate a balloon. It gives me a thrill every time.”
These days, he’s channeling his youthful passion for education into his work as the head of the Planetary Society, an international nonprofit that facilitates engineering projects related to astronomy, planetary science and space exploration. He’s no longer working for an audience primarily composed of youngsters, but his belief that showmanship is a vital part of outreach and education hasn’t changed. He recalls when, early in the run of “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” he testified before the Federal Communications Commission regarding its attempts to define “educational programming,” as the 1990 Children’s Television Act had required TV stations to broadcast.
“I told them, ‘The “Science Guy Show” is an entertainment show first before it is an education show,’” he tells Peabody.
“No, you don’t—. Bill, you’re speaking dichotomously. You don’t know what you’re—,” they told him.
“No. You guys, I make the freaking show. OK? It’s entertainment first. It’s education first-ish. 1B, if you will. And this fundamental idea, you guys, if you’re going to make a TV show, it’s got to be worthy of being on the TV. in order to be successful as an educational show, it has to be entertaining to watch,” he explained.
(We note here that in a lively, tangent-filled conversation wherein Nye found time to educate listeners on the origins of the word “empennage” and of the em dash, he did not pause to identify the person whom he alleges accused him of speaking “dichotomously.”)
The challenge of how to convey essential and complex information without chasing away the audience is something he still thinks about.
Climate change is much more prominent in the public consciousness now than when Nye’s show was in syndication, but how to reflect the gravity of the issue without alienating viewers was a quandary Nye and his writers wrestled with even a generation ago.
“We worked very hard to not scare the kids,” Nye says. He seems to come to the realization while speaking with Peabody that what he was practicing could be called optimism. And the fact that Peabody—like him, someone who works to present educational material in an entertaining way—was one of the kids for whom his show was formative makes his optimism, then and now, seem well founded.