Monday, July 24, 2006

A Lunar Memory

Today is the anniversary of the safe return to Earth of the Apollo XI astronauts. They landed in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, after two of them -- Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin -- became the first two humans to walk on the surface of the moon.

Two years ago, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the lunar landing, I wrote a madeleine for The Metro Herald that recalled my own feelings as a 10-year-old boy on the night of the first moonwalk. (Funny -- today, putting the terms "10-year-old boy" and "moonwalk" in the same sentence conjures up an entirely different image. But I digress.)

Here is that article, published in The Metro Herald's edition of July 23, 2004:

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 preteen 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 10-point type.)

The entire country was riveted to its television 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 that 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.

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 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 some two 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 advances 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.

* * *

Richard E. Sincere is a noted author and regular contributor to The Metro Herald; he resides in Charlottesville, Va.

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