Durham teen discovers piece of space history, lands VIP seat at - WNCN: News, Weather

Durham teen discovers piece of space history, lands VIP seat at final launch

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By Penn Holderness

I have to admit -- I am a space nerd.

I've watched "Apollo 13" about 60 times, and "From the Earth to the Moon" about six times.

When I worked the AM shift at NBC-17 and I needed a book to put me to sleep at 7 p.m., I found an old textbook at a used bookstore near N.C. State called "The Science of Spaceflight." Boring as heck, but now I know what a Hohmann transfer is, and I can tell you how they mix propulsion elements to send rockets a million miles. 

Like everyone else, it started somewhere.

For me it was going to the Museum of Life and Science almost every day as a kid -- my mom was a volunteer there so I got free roam of their space exhibit -- it had a great mockup of a moon landing and a Lunar Module, and also a real test command module. 

That's where it started for me.

For Shannon Schanze, it started when she was a kid, watching the space race and the Apollo missions in the '60s. For millions of Americans, that's how it started.

Then there's Shannon's 16-year-old son, Kevin. His love affair of space exploration started when it washed up down the street from his beach house. 

It was a one-in-a-million discovery. When he was 11, Kevin was riding on a golf cart around his family's beach home neighborhood in Bath, N.C. It was 2006 and Hurricane Ernesto had flooded parts of the Pamlico sound, so there was debris all over the place.

"My buddy and I saw this metal sheet on the ground, and we thought it was a stop sign or something," Kevin recalls. "I turned it over and it was a really old piece of metal, and there was a little stamp on it. I looked closer and saw that it said "Apollo 16."

Whoa.

"I heard everyone screaming come outside," Shannon recalled. "We were just stunned. It was the coolest thing that could ever happen to an 11-year-old." 

After a few painstaking years trying to confirm the authenticity of their find, the Schanzes received a letter from NASA telling them the good news: Kevin had indeed found a piece of Apollo 16.

NASA confirmed that it was from the first stage of the rocket; the part that never made it into space, but splashed down in the Atlantic a few minutes after takeoff. 

Kevin had some time to figure out the unlikelihood of that piece of metal's journey.

"We think it came down right off the coast of Florida. Then over the course of about 30 years, it worked its way up the coast, probably got into the Gulfstream. It must've snuck into one of the Inlets in the Outer Banks and floated through into the Pamlico Sound," Kevin said.

"After the hurricane [Ernesto], there's a peninsula in our neighborhood that always goes underwater. That's where the sheet turned up. 

"The NASA director told me it was a one in a million chance that I'd find it, and another one in a million chance that it had the Mission Stamp on it, because there aren't too many of those."

Kevin continued, "I kinda knew it was important but didn't know it was that important."

No kidding. As soon as NASA confirmed its authenticity, they wanted it back.

"They sent us a nice, but rather urgent email asking us if we'd sent it to them or if they should just come and get it," Shannon said. "It sounded like it would be a bunch of guys in black suits and sunglasses on my porch, so I said, 'Let's just send it back."

Kevin was sad to see it leave, but the gesture has paid off exponentially.

Last weekend NASA took the family on an all-access tour through the Kennedy Space Center as a thank-you. 

They let Kevin go the top of the Atlantis launch pad, go into the Atlantis cockpit, and they showered him with books, mission patches and pins.

And NASA invited him back this weekend, the family had a seat in the VIP viewing deck for the final launch of a Space Shuttle.

"He is getting to experience something only a handful of people can experience," Shannon explained.

One other thing both Schanzes told me: they also experienced a palpable melancholy mood around Kennedy.

"They all just seem so… sad right now. It's like they know that this is coming to an end. They've spent their whole life, all these long hours, surrounded by all of these amazing things that they shared with us.

"And now they have no idea what they are going to do next."

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