The 1969 moon landing was a moment in time we all remember. From sea to shining sea people watched in awe and prayed for three men who took a giant step for humanity. The landing was not an American success; it was a world success. Schools, churches, businesses, and ordinary life, paused for a brief moment to witness the unthinkable and the excitable. Black and white television sets in shop windows, diners, restaurants, and class rooms gave us mere mortals a glimpse of “out there”. As Captain Kirk so aptly put it, “where no man has gone before”.
The space race started in the late fifties with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, and later the first earth orbit by a young 27 year-old Soviet, Yuri Gagarin. A test pilot and industrial technician, Gagarin made an 89 minute historic orbit around the earth. It was 2 April, 1961. Space exploration had begun in earnest. Eventually it turned into an unspoken race between the Soviet Union and America. The “space race” was more than an attempt to conquer the elusive void. It was validating which super power was superior. Although the Soviet Union had the early advantage, America had the tenacity, technology, and Americans behind it.
President elect JFK understood the significance of successful space travel and the impact it would have on global politics, especially on the Cold War. On May 25, 1961, in an address to Congress, JFK put forth the now iconic objective that “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth”. He asked for funding, and the rest is history. Within a year, names like John Glen, Alan Shepard, Walter Schirra, and Virgil Grissom joined a long list of potential astronauts. They embarked on an intensive program of space training that would eventually put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
The race for space supremacy went beyond romantic idealism. It was also psychological. It was assumed that whoever “dominated” space would ultimately “dominate” the world. The notion that a super power could determine our fate was daunting. It was “quasi” science fiction. As the Iron Curtain descended on Europe, the hope that America would win the space race became more prevalent. That feeling gathered momentum when our hazy black and white television screens showed the Berlin Wall going up. JFK’s visit to Berlin became a testimonial to America’s commitment to fight Communism and the freedom of the Eastern Bloc. The Soviet Union had lost the public relations battle.
In mid-1980’s, space travel became “up close and personal” for our military family. Albeit military life could be stressful and nomadic, it also gave us unique opportunities that we otherwise would not have had. In 1984, we were assigned to Patrick Air Force Base in Central Florida. We lived barely 20 miles from Cocoa Beach, Cape Canaveral, and the Kennedy Space Center. The Cape and Space Center were visible from the beach at the end of our road. I can vividly remember the first time the kids and I stood on the beach anticipating a launch of a Space Shuttle from across the horizon. The distance was inconsequential as we heard the rumbling and saw the simultaneous flash that indicated the shuttle launch. As the rocket carrying the shuttle rose upward toward the hot Florida sky, it changed its trajectory and arched toward a new path right on top of us. There were no words to describe the wonder of that moment. We were to relive that launch many times in the following months. The Air Force provided special transport and passes to watch shuttle launches directly from the Cape. We were close enough to feel the launch vibration without being in danger. Regardless of how many times we watched the launces, each launch brought a feeling of excitement and anticipation. They were moments of incredulity.
The incredulity increased when we had the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center and see early Space Program rockets and capsules. We developed a new respect for those who volunteered to train and go into space. There is a fine line between courage and insanity. I believe that those astronauts were on the edge of both. Apollo capsules were no bigger than a closet. Strapped in cramped places and subject to drastic temperatures in entering and re-entering atmospheres, the danger of launching into space was obvious. Drastic atmospheric conditions caused outer layers to burn and heat resistant tiles to fall off. Crude and rudimentary technology left astronauts vulnerable to dangers beyond our comprehension. The chances of being burnt or frozen alive were an equal probability. They relied on control centers in Florida and Houston for support because they had neither equipment nor the space to fix much of anything in an emergency. Years later, Neil Armstrong admitted that making it back home alive from the moon landing was a primary concern. You think?
The Space Program was not without tragedy. On January 27, 1967, three astronauts, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee were killed in a routine ground test. Fire broke inside the capsule and they suffocated. On January 28, 1986, and only six months after we had left Florida and Patrick AFB, the Challenger carrying the first teacher Christa McAuliffe burst into flames a few seconds after launch. Challenger was one of the shuttles we had often watched being launched at the Cape. On February 1, 2003, the Columbia broke apart upon re-entry killing all astronauts on board to include Israeli Ilan Ramon.
1969 was on the edge between our parents’ Baby Boomer generation and us. We were between the old and the new. The traditional and the “modern”. Our parents could not understand our fascination for loud and often disconnected music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the myriad of other long-haired pot smoking entertainers. Woodstock crushed all barriers of what was traditional. While women’s skirts grew shorter, men’s hair grew longer. An upside down world was unfolding.
But on that hot 20th July in 1969, the crazy 60’s world found solace in the hazy black and white images of a small space craft landing on the moon. As Neil Armstrong stepped out, we held our breath and wiped off tears of joy and thanksgiving. America was united in pride. There was no partisanship. Vietnam, feminism, and other political agendas were temporarily set aside, and for a few days Americans were united in watching three of their brave countrymen land on the moon and return safely back to earth. I can only recall one other significant moment of unity in American modern history: after 9/11.
50 years ago nobody questioned the authenticity of the moon landing. We believed in the success of American ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and optimism. There was a genuine love of country that JFK reiterated in his inaugural address; “…ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country”. These singularly and distinctive American traditional qualities have unfortunately been eroded by social entitlement and coddling. The sense of adventure has dissipated in narcissist expectations that fail to permit failure as a learning experience. JFK’s message has fallen short on this generation’s ego centric expectations.
As naïve as it might sound, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, did what they did for “love of country”. I am hoping, futile as it might seem; that on this 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, educators take time to tell the story. The story how the impossible became possible. How the improbable became fact. How the Moon landing was not about America, but about mankind. Before leaving the moon surface for the return journey home, the astronauts left an American flag on the surface. They also left a patch commemorating those who perished in Apollo 1 just two years prior. But most importantly, they left a plaque with a message: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.”
To all the men and women who dedicated their lives to making the Space Program a reality and bringing astronauts home safely: Thank You.