Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Eagle Has Landed

We were living in Connecticut, if memory serves (a somewhat spotty thing for me these days), back in 1962. I wasn't a news junkie yet. I mean, I was just 11 years old. Televisions offered only three networks, and those were in black-and-white. Radio was mostly a static-filled AM thing. Newspapers were for adults; I read comic books.

Even the Beatles were trying to find themselves back in 1962, replacing their drummer, Pete Best, with some goofball named Ringo – if we even knew who the Beatles were back then.

But in September of that year, President John F. Kennedy told a crowd of 40,000 people sweltering in the Texas heat at Rice University football stadium that it would be nice if we, the United States, could put a man on the moon – and bring him back home again – before the end of the decade.

I didn't hear the speech, but I heard the request. What an audacious thing to say. In 1962, we were just 35 years removed from Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. We had no rockets that could reach Earth's escape velocity. We had no spacesuits. We had no astrophysicists. All we had was Walt Disney (from 1955):

And you want to put a man on the moon?

But a mere seven years later, I was sitting in front of a color television set. I'd become an 18-year-old  news junkie by then, hooked and fueled by the coverage of Kennedy's assassination just a little more than a year after his speech at Rice University. All of us knew who the Beatles were by then and we listened to them enchant us on clear-as-a-bell FM radio. And we had Mission Control, where all those 30-year-old engineers, mathematicians and physicists wore white dress shirts, skinny ties and chain-smoked cigarettes.

And we had Project Apollo.

Fifty years and several hours ago, I was in front of my TV, patiently waiting for Neil Armstrong to set foot on the moon's surface. It was getting late into the night, almost 11 p.m. The lunar module, Eagle, had landed at 4:19 p.m., but it took Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin seven long and unending hours to prepare for their moonwalk.

I wondered if it was even going to happen as I listened to fatherly Walter Cronkite assure me that it was. I'd watch a little, walk away for a bit, and then come back to watch some more. It might not even have been wall-to-wall coverage back then; I'm not sure. It probably was.

And, finally, it was time. I remember being drowsy, but I wasn't going to miss this for anything.

Then, almost as if by magic, the grainy live pictures of Armstrong climbing down the ladder of the lunar module were broadcast into our living room. I remember thinking that it was amazing that we had live television coverage of this event, an historic endeavor somehow transmitted 240,000 miles for the world to see. How'd they do that?

I really thought we were on the cusp of something spectacular back then. I could see missions to Mars and beyond. Star Trek made me think Vulcans, Tribbles and warp speed could be real things. We could do anything.

But, no. Budget cuts and shifting priorities have distracted us from our natural inclination to explore. Just three years later, with Apollo 17 in 1972, Gene Cernan became the last man to set foot on the moon.

I can only hope that we're in a holding pattern right now. I remember how excited I was about space exploration back in the 1960s, and maybe NASA, in conjunction with commercial entrepreneurs like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, can take us there again.

I hope so. I mean, I really want to see a Tribble.

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