Doug Hardy was barely inside the door of the National Air and Space Museum when he made up his first "fact."
On a sunny morning a few days before Father's Day, Hardy and his son Andrei were huddled under the Mercury capsule. Like countless dads before him, he was explaining rocket science to his boy, in this case how the mottled heat shield protected John Glenn from a fiery death as the craft plunged through the atmosphere.
Then Andrei, 12, asked: What are these dark disks made of?
Again, like countless dads before him, Hardy answered confidently -- even though he didn't have a clue.
"Steel," he said.
(The shield is actually made from a plastic-fiberglass composite, said Michael Neufeld, chairman of the museum's space history division. The disks are plugs left over from post-flight analysis.)
If it didn't occur to Hardy to say, "I don't know," he's not alone. The phenomenon of the "know-it-all dad" is a familiar one to the docents, curators and keepers of America's museums and zoos.
"Just about every time I'm on the floor, I hear a father say something incorrect to his kids," said Bobbe Dyke, who has been a docent and tour guide at Air and Space for 31 years. "You can't butt in and correct them in front of the kids. You just have to cringe."
Asked about the exchange a few minutes later, Hardy, a Boston-based writer, good-naturedly admitted his lack of metallurgical expertise. Further, he confessed to winging it factwise more than once during the museum-filled road trip with his son.
"Now that I think about it, I guess I make up stuff all the time," he said. Only a few days earlier, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Andrei had asked how bronze statues were made. Hardy finessed an explanation based on half-remembered notions of wax molds and plaster.
"It was a total BS moment," Hardy said. "But you've got to be the guy who has the answers, right? It's a habit. What should I say, that I'm 51 years old and I used to know this 20 years ago? That's not much of an answer."
Gaffes range from minor to whoppers
Standing in the museum's entrance hall, Dyke can attach a bit of overheard blarney to just about every icon on display:
- The Spirit of St. Louis: Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly across the Atlantic. (He was the first to do it solo and nonstop.)
- Friendship 7: John Glenn flew the little capsule to the moon. (He was the first American to orbit the Earth.)
- Sputnik: The Russian satellite carried a dog into space. (The sphere -- the one at the museum is a replica of the one that went into space -- is less than 23 inches in diameter.)
- The Bell X-1: The sound-barrier-busting aircraft was built without landing gear to make it faster. (The wheels are just retracted.)
"I've heard a lot of fathers tell a lot of sons that the rotating litter chair in the Skylab Orbital Workshop was the toilet," Dyke said. "It has a solid metal seat."
It isn't just dads, of course. Mothers are perfectly capable of dispensing misinformation in response to their children's nonstop queries about the world. But the howlers that get repeated with glee in museum break rooms seem to overwhelmingly feature dads getting it wrong.
"I think dads do it more because they don't want to admit it when they don't know something," said Don Lopez, the museum's deputy director. "And they make a lot of mistakes."
The gaffes range from minor, such as Hardy's misapplied steel, to epic whoppers, such as the forklift that went to the moon.
"That's one we talk about a lot," Lopez said.
Workers had put exhibit ropes around a forklift on the floor to keep kids from climbing on it. Sure enough, Lopez said, a boy was heard asking whether it was a piece of space equipment, and his father answered that it had been to the moon.
One area where kids often have an edge on their parents is wildlife biology, thanks to endless critter shows on cable TV and a steady stream of Internet-researched animal reports for school.
"I hear kids correcting their dads all the time on the difference between insects and spiders or great apes versus monkeys," said Alan Peters, curator of the National Zoo's Invertebrate House. "As a parent, you have to keep yourself in check or you'll get yourself in trouble."
But probably no venue generates as much paternal misinformation as the museums, such as Air and Space, that specialize in machines, gadgets and technology.
"This is inherently macho stuff," said Peter Golkin, Air and Space spokesman and father of two kids younger than 9. "Hey, I work here, and I know a lot about this stuff, and even I feel pressure to come up with an answer."
Some experts say museums are to blame for setting up parents as oracles. Kathleen McLean, a former director of San Francisco's Exploratorium, said too many museums present themselves as citadels of knowledge, places that are more about transmitting facts than inspiring wonder.
"The kids are not afraid to ask questions, but the adults feel an absolute need to provide answers," said McLean, an exhibit design consultant and president of the museum Visitor Studies Association. "Rather than say, 'I don't know; let's find out,' parents feel like they have to make something up to seem smart. We really need to embrace not knowing it all."
John Adami would probably know exactly what McLean means when she laments a museum's "intimidating mantle of authority." The Denton, Tex., dad was visiting Washington's museum row with his wife and five kids last week and had been fielding questions by the minute.
"It's a humbling experience," Adami said in front of the lunar landing display shortly after making a hash of explaining the Apollo programs. "It makes you question your intelligence after a while."
He turned slightly away from the family. "I've even been making up my own words," he said.
On the other hand, there are plenty of dads who relish playing professor for a day. Golkin described a species of fact-armed enthusiast that delights in challenging the staff on its knowledge of space minutiae. Curators call it "Stump the Smithsonian," Golkin said.
Beth Wilson, a museum education specialist, remembered the father of two young kids who took over her information booth and began lecturing visitors on the physics of flight while she was on a coffee break.
"He was behind the cart, teaching," she said. "His kids had wandered off long before."
Most of the know-it-all dads do start out with a baseline of accurate data, Wilson said. They get tripped up when they try to go too deep.
"They have some working knowledge of a subject without fully grasping the details," she said. "Sometimes we say that a little PBS is a dangerous thing."
To reduce the number of mangled facts being handed down through the generations, the National Museum of American History once installed a phone in a telecommunications exhibit labeled "Ask a Curator." It rang in a staff office.
But, said Barney Finn, one of the exhibit's designers, the two most common questions that came over the line were "What's a curator?" and "Where is the bathroom?"