Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Neil Armstrong made his one giant leap 50 years and about one hour ago.
I at 53 am just barely old enough to remember the Apollo program. I remember watching Apollo 11 lift off from Cape Canaveral with my parents and my newborn baby brother, on our little black and white TV. I knew enough to know it was terribly, terribly important, although I didn’t understand why. I do not remember the the actual landing, I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t see it; it was way past my bedtime. I was only three years old.
But I learned about Apollo 11 by reading the commemorative issue of Newsweek magazine that my mom kept and carefully preserved, and is still at her house.
I am old enough to remember the later missions. I clearly remember seeing incredibly vivid live color pictures of Apollo 17 bouncing around the Taurus-Littrow valley in their “moon buggy,” as it was nicknamed, the Lunar Rover. I also remember thinking that we were going to see a lot more of that, that we would build a moonbase and it would become a regular thing. And being excited.
I loved the space program as a kid. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was tiny, not a nurse or a mommy — until I suddenly realized that my eyesight was far too bad to ever become a jet pilot, and so I would never be allowed into the space program. (That was still the case back then.) Lego had a giant “Moonbase” set that I wanted so badly, but never got because it was hella expensive.
My second grade reader was all about the space program, and I learned about the Mercury and Gemini programs that preceded Apollo, about the astronauts and their capsules — Friendship 7, Freedom 7, Liberty Bell 7. It was not lost on me that they were named things like Friendship and Freedom, not Javelin or War Eagle or anything like that. I was young enough to completely accept the propaganda that the moon shot was an endeavor of pure science and human achievement, conducted in the spirit of exploration and inquiry, nothing so grubby as politics. That propaganda probably contributed to my lifelong disdain for money and the profit motive and the balance sheet, and my choice of a career in public service. As I grew older and realized Apollo had been a tool of the Cold War all along, it was bitterly disillusioning.
(But still, that war was fought at least partly by these peaceful means after all, exploration and discovery, not weapons and conquest. They turned missiles into spacecraft, not the other way around — the Redstone rockets that launched the early Mercury missions.)
That, the race having been won, America and the world turned its back on the moon and space exploration has been one of the biggest disappointments of my life. I grew up reading Heinlein juveniles and watching original Star Trek and 2001:A Space Odyssey. I thought our future lay in space. I still do. It is our very nature to explore and expand. We, homo sapiens, walked out of Africa over 70,000 years ago, and we walked, sailed, swam to every habitable corner of this planet. To see what’s beyond the horizon, to pierce the new frontier, is in our very DNA. We turn our back on that urge at our peril, I think.
To my mind, Apollo is still the pinnacle of human achievement. Apollo is my touchstone to the thought that the human race is capable of true greatness, true excellence. That our reach does not exceed our grasp. We went from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base in sixty years. We did the impossible. Apollo proves that we, the human race, can do anything we want to, if we have the will.
Many of the challenges that face the human race right now seem impossible to solve. But they’re not, if we face them squarely and have the will to meet them. I want us to have that will again. I know we can, because I saw men walk on the moon, who went in peace for all mankind.