Today is the thirty-sixth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the flight that culminated in man's first landing on the moon.
Last year, to commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary (years ending in zero or five are more natural for celebrating anniversaries than those ending in six), I wrote a piece for The Metro Herald. It was something of a childhood memoir, sort of like Truman Capote's -- er, Harper Lee's -- To Kill a Mockingbird, but without the style, story, or substance. But it's a sketch, not a novel. (If I have a novel in me, it has not neared the surface.)
This article appeared in the July 23, 2004, edition of The Metro Herald:
Celebrating Humankind's Greatest Achievement
Richard E. Sincere
Exclusive to the Metro Herald
(Charlottesville, July 20) --- It was a sultry midsummer Sunday evening, warm even by Wisconsin standards.
Only recently had the Milwaukee archdiocese permitted local churches to expand their weekend Mass schedules beyond the traditional Sunday morning services to include Saturday and Sunday late afternoons and evenings. (The first time my family went to church on a Saturday for the new "vigil Mass," the church bulletin had a headline, "Do you feel Jewish?")
Despite the Vatican II reforms that had shortened the Sunday liturgy significantly, I was anxious for this evening Mass to end. Normally a well-behaved, quiet 10-year-old, on this occasion I persistently tugged my mother's sleeve, silently asking, "When will this be finished? When can we go home?" She replied with a motherly, "Calm down. We won't miss it."
What was it I was so afraid of missing? What had transformed a languid, leisurely Sunday into a mess of pre-teen anxiety?
The date was Sunday, July 20, 1969. If that does not sufficiently explain my addled state of mind that day, you were probably born much later.
That was the day, 35 years ago, that man first set foot on the moon. That was, perhaps, the last time the nation united as one to celebrate an accomplishment of peace and science. The New York Times reported the news with a front-page headline in 96-point type. (By comparison, this article you're reading is in 12-point type.)
The entire country was riveted to its (mostly black-and-white) TV screens. Normal programming was pre-empted by coverage of this momentous event. "Lassie" and "Bonanza" reruns would have to wait for another Sunday evening.
There have been other occasions when all Americans were as absorbed by a news event, so absorbed as to fear blinking on the chance something might pass them by. But those events have been almost uniformly tragic ones: the Kennedy assassinations, Nixon's resignation speech, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
What made this event even more remarkable was that the nation was at war, not only abroad but, metaphorically speaking, at home. The Vietnam War had divided the country politically. Protest demonstrations often erupted into violence while American soldiers, sailors, and Marines were fighting and dying overseas. Race riots had scarred America's cities in the previous few years, most notably in the days following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., only 15 months earlier.
Yet on that hot summer night, the fabric of the nation was noticeably unrent. We shared a communion of fascination that is unlikely to be repeated in the jaundiced age in which we live today.
There is a current comic strip called "Red and Rover," by cartoonist Brian Basset, which looks at the world through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy and his dog at about the same time as the moon landing. Young Red's obsession with the space program may be exceeded in intensity only by his crush on Marcia Brady. To him, as to many of his contemporaries, the names Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were not just words in a history book -- they were genuine, visible, vibrant heroes. And Walter Cronkite, Frank McGee, and Wernher von Braun were not just television talking-heads -- they explained and made accessible to youngsters and adults alike the wonderment of lunar travel.
"One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind": The words are as familiar -- or should be as familiar -- to Americans as "Four score and seven years ago ... " or "When in the course of human events ..." Armstrong's well-chosen ten words sum up the ingenuity, courage, and incredible virtuosity that took us to the moon -- man's destination from time immemorial -- within a decade of the decision to go there.
Today we live in a world of technology that we take for granted. Home computers, cellphones, iPods are simply parts of daily life. A visitor to Cape Canaveral can look at the banks of computers in its 1969-vintage control room and shake his head in bewilderment at how such primitive technology could have taken not just one, not just three, but a dozen men safely to the moon and back. (I know, because I was that visitor to Cape Canaveral just a few years ago.)
We have made many scientific advancements in the past 100 years. Didn't we just celebrate the centenary of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk a few months ago? In the 65 years and seven months between that achievement and the moon landing, we saw the development of jet engines, the atomic bomb, television, and satellite communications. Since 1969 we have developed more technologies and inventions than anyone could count. The recent prospect of privately-underwritten space travel is exciting in an economic and political sense, but hardly awe-inspiring.
Really: In the past 35 years, has any scientific or engineering achievement been so dramatic, so earth-shattering, so emotionally satisfactory, as man's first steps on the moon?
To ask the question is to answer it.