08/07/2011 04:49 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2011

Space History in DC: White Roses for Explorers, Part 1

Events of July 4, 2011

It was Independence Day in Washington, DC, and everyone was going to the National Mall. In addition to the ongoing Smithsonian Folklife Festival, there were special performances and celebrations, and there would be fireworks there that night. The concierge at the hotel where my father was staying advised not taking any Metro route that went through the city center, as all of the trains would be overcrowded.

So, after my father left to catch his flight back to New York, I decided it would be a good day to ride the Metro in the opposite direction and visit somewhere out of the city entirely. I'd planned on spending a day at Arlington National Cemetery at some point during my internship, so I figured today would be the perfect time.

I'd been to Arlington on my 8th grade trip, but we'd only been able to visit the Tomb of the Unknowns and President Kennedy's gravesite, because we'd been on a bus tour. This time, I wanted to go at my own pace, visiting several monuments I'd heard about that sounded interesting. In particular, if it was possible, I wanted to find the graves of some of the astronauts who are buried at Arlington and pay my respects.

Before I set out, I went to the supermarket near the dorm where I bought most of my food, because I'd seen them selling flowers there before. The only type of flowers they had more than one bouquet of that were all the same were white roses, so I bought two bouquets of ten white roses. The cashier gave me a few funny looks as he scanned them, so I put them into a National Archives shopping bag to avoid stares on the Metro. (I also made sure to pack two water bottles in the bag, because I was going to be walking a lot, and I knew how hot it was outside.)

On the avenue leading up to the cemetery itself from the Metro station, there are several statues. One of them, a monument to polar explorer and aviator Richard E. Byrd, had been commissioned by the National Geographic Society and featured a very dynamic statue of Admiral Byrd in his polar gear. I stopped to take some pictures and read the inscription. "On the bright globe, he carved his signature of courage."

At the Visitor's Center, I picked up a free map of the cemetery that luckily included several listings of where the graves of famous people could be found, including one for "Exploration and Space." I borrowed a highlighter from the man behind the information desk and started making a plan. In addition to the astronauts, I also wanted to find the resting places of Admiral Byrd, Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, the leaders of the first expedition to the North Pole, and John Wesley Powell, the one-armed scientist and surveyor who first mapped the Colorado River and Grand Canyon.

Section 2 was only about three hundred meters from the Visitor's Center, and right by the path I could see the name "Richard E. Byrd" on one of the standard white marble headstones that most of the graves in the cemetery have. The grave of his son, also named Richard, was next to it. I left one of the roses and took a photograph.

I continued down Roosevelt Drive (most of the roads in the cemetery are named for generals or presidents) until I reached my next stop, Section 7A. I was surprised I'd found Byrd's grave so quickly, and since this was a smaller section, I hoped it might be just as easy to find the grave of Captain Michael Smith, the pilot of the Space Shuttle Challenger on its final flight.

It took me longer than I thought, because Smith's headstone was near the back of the section. I had a few false alarms when I spotted the name "Smith" on other headstones, but the first name turned out to be something else. However, while I was looking, I found another astronaut I hadn't even been looking for -- Stuart "Stu" Roosa, who orbited the moon on the Apollo 14 mission! (Is it disrespectful if I say that I thought it was really cool that he had a Saturn V moon rocket carved on his tombstone? Because it did look very cool.) After leaving Mr. Roosa a flower, I finally found Captain Smith's grave.

I felt a little bit awkward as I read the inscription looked at the astronaut wings carved on the headstone. I felt like I should say something, but I wasn't sure what. This man and his six crewmates had died seven years before I was even born. So I just left a rose and walked on.