Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years ago today

Forty years from now, senior citizens all over the world will remember exactly where they were the moment they learned of the death of Michael Jackson. Every generation has its defining moments. Mass media have made those moments instantaneously shared experiences.

For Americans of my parents' generation, their defining moment was December 7th, 1941.

I'm not certain if the 1950s produced events of that magnitude but the 1960s more than made up for that. Ask anyone who was alive at the time what they were doing at 12:30pm on November 22nd, 1963. More than likely they'll be able to tell you. I was in kindergarten. I remember learning the terrible news, probably from Walter Cronkite in that clip that has been played over and over again this weekend, as he took off those big horned rimmed glasses and told us that the president was dead.

There were many defining moments in that turbulent decade, most were bad news.

Except for one.

So where were you on July 20, 1969?

President Kennedy had set the bar awfully high in 1961 when he made the commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. I find it funny that he had to add the part about bringing him home safely, as if there were an alternative!

As a boy growing up in the 1960s, much of my childhood was defined by the space program. I don’t remember America's first foray into manned space flight, the Mercury Program. Most of what I know about that comes from the movie "The Right Stuff". But I do remember very fondly Gemini, which was the second stage leading up to the Apollo Program which would ultimately accomplish Kennedy's goal.

I was not interested in science fiction. As far as I was concerned, who needed Star Trek with Captain Kirk running around in his Spandex jammies cavorting with intergalactic beauties when we had real life heroes who truly went where no man had ever gone before. These were real men and later, women whose very existence depended on the skills and tireless work of countless scientists, engineers and technicians as they sat on top of what were essentially gigantic sticks of dynamite.

Every launch brought with it great excitement and anticipation. Huge chunks of air time were devoted to each mission. Every mission tested out new techniques and procedures, each bringing us a step closer to the moon. The commentators would sit at their special sets interviewing experts like Werner von Braun proving once and for all that "our Germans are better than the their (the Soviets’) Germans", one of my favorite lines from "The Right Stuff".

Those were the days before computer graphics and the reporters used plastic models to explain what was going on which no doubt spiked the sales of model spacecraft.

We children were encouraged to study hard because all the astronauts were all straight A students, or so we were told.

In one of the greatest marketing gimmicks of all time, the commercials told us that the astronauts drank a powdered orange drink called Tang on their missions. Guess what I drank for breakfast?

Of course not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the space program. Those were really heady times indeed. The summer of 1967 known as the “Summer of Love”, wasn’t.

In reality, violence and human rights issues were tearing the country apart. The Vietnam War was escalating and becoming increasingly unpopular. Cities across the country were ablaze from race riots. That was also the year of the Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

As bad as 1967 was, 1968 was worse. In January, the Tet Offensive began. This was the turning point of the war when it became increasingly apparent that our involvement in Southeast Asia was futile, Walter Cronkite told us as much. Lyndon Johnson heard the message and knew he had lost the support of Middle America. He announced to the nation that he would not seek a second term as president. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated and any hope for racial unity in America was shattered for years to come. The riots that ensued all across the country made the riots the year before look like child's play. The west and south sides of Chicago burned. Mayor Richard J. Daley issued his infamous "shoot to kill" order. The riots would forever change the fabric of Chicago and other cities as many who could afford to move, including my own family, made the exodus to the apparent safety of the suburbs. The term "inner city" became synonymous for poverty, crime, and above all, danger.

Late in the summer more riots took place in Chicago as protesters from all over the country came here during the Democratic National Convention. When several of his correspondents on the convention floor were roughed up by security, the normally even tempered Cronkite said: "I can't wait to get the damn hell out of this city".

On a personal note, at the time of the Convention, as we were moving into our new house in suburban Oak Park, my proudly Czech father came down the stairs with tears in his eyes to tell us that the Russians had just invaded Czechoslovakia.

In the midst of all this turmoil, getting to the moon must have seemed trivial indeed. But not to me. On Christmas Day 1968, the day when the furnace to our new house went out forcing us to huddle in the kitchen for heat, we watched one of the most amazing television events of all time. It was that day when the astronauts from Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders (OK I had to look up his name), made their historical transmission while orbiting the moon. They were the first humans to leave the earth's orbit and head into outer space. It was the most memorable Christmas of my life.

It would be seven months until the landing on the moon. During that time, Richard Nixon became president. In his inaugural address he said: "the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker." One month later he approved the bombing of Cambodia. The "Chicago Eight" were indicted for their role in the riots during the Democratic Convention. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire. And there would be two more Apollo missions to test the lunar module, the ship that would eventually touch down on the moon’s surface.

On July 16, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Kennedy carrying three astronauts, Michael Collins, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Three days later they entered lunar orbit. The next day Armstrong and Aldrin would enter the lunar module for the descent to the surface of the moon while Collins remained in the Command Module, orbiting while his fellow astronauts would walk on the moon.

The landing would be the most hair raising part of the journey. In what seemed to be an eternity from earth, the astronauts had to depend on their wits and piloting skills as the planned landing site turned out to be a boulder strewn field. As the gauge showed a perilously low amount of fuel, Armstrong and Aldrin had to "wing" it, and landed with little breathing room. The first words from the surface of the moon were Aldrin's who was reporting technical data to Mission Control and Armstrong. Then the crew's wordsmith Armstrong uttered his second most famous line: "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed." Even today I can't think of these words without getting goosebumps. If you saw all the coverage of Walter Cronkite over the weekend, the clip where he looks downright giddy was right at this moment.

It would take another eternity for the two to actually leave the craft and walk on the moon.
As I recall, finally around 11pm a fuzzy black and white image from a camera mounted outside the lunar module showed a moving figure, Armstrong of course. It took a while to figure out what was what. The audio quality wasn't much better. Armstrong's famous if grammatically incorrect first words as he set foot on the moon sounded to me like this:

"Shhhhhhhhhhh eksh wa sma ste for mahyn shhhhhhhh wa giun lee fr mahynkye blipblipshhhhhhh"

But it finally happened and it was wonderful with Armstrong and Aldrin hopping and bopping on the moon for a couple of hours. I walked outside to look at the moon and part of me had a hard time believing it was true. They planted an American flag which had to be starched stiff because on the moon there is no wind to unfurl it. I can’t remember if I stayed up for the whole thing because it was very late.

The heroes came home and ignominiously had to stay in quarantine in a glorified Airstream trailer for several weeks in case of exposure to pathogens from the moon. Then came the tickertape and the adulation. The fascination lasted for a while. I remember standing in line for now what seems like hours to view a moon rock on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Then it was over. Life went on, crazy as ever. Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after he drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha's Vineyard, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. The Woodstock Rock festival took place on a farm in Upstate New York. The Days of Rage riots took place in October in Chicago. The Beatles recorded their last album, Abbey Road.

NASA sent six more missions to the moon. The public's interest in Apollo 12 was marginal at best. The ill fated Apollo 13 brought interest back for a while but the final three successful trips to the moon were almost anticlimactic.

While there has been an almost continuous presence in space since, nothing has fueled the public's imagination like the race to the moon.

The space program seems frivolous to many Americans. Why spend money in space when there are so many problems here is the sentiment. Even scientists questioned the validity of a manned space program when you can get much more bang for the buck by sending robots into space.

Admittedly, the quest to the moon was our government's answer to the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War and in the early sixties the Soviets were significantly ahead of us in the space race. Putting a man on the moon was the obvious goal. Once that was achieved, what was left?

Sending men to the moon is the greatest technological achievement in the history of mankind. Nothing we have done since has come close. It has been the standard by which all failed achievements have been compared.

"If we can put a man on the moon why can't we ..."

The assumption is if we put our energy into solving all the serious problems in the world as we did sending a man to the moon, we'd really be getting somewhere.

While the space program gave us the belief that we can do anything, the 40 years since we landed on the moon have proven otherwise.

Space program advocates site the numerous benefits from space exploration. Most involve all the technological advances developed by NASA that have improved life in many ways.

While there is no question that we have benefited tremendously from our technological advances, the reality of course is that technology cannot solve all our problems.

I think one of the most profound things that the trip to the moon gave us was a photograph. Actually several photographs. For the first time we saw our planet exactly as that, a small, fragile, finite world floating in a see of nothingness. We haven’t seen our planet the same since. We once thought of the earth as a bountiful place with infinite resources. Today, at least the reasonable among us we see this beautiful planet as our home. I don't think that it was coincidence that the environmental movement gained tremendous steam after we saw those photographs. The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan said: "We went to explore the Moon, and in fact discovered the Earth".

It was an audacious dream in 1961 to send a man to the moon. The technological hurdles and human danger that had to be overcome were tremendous. The tragic fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967, as well as the Challenger and Columbia disasters much later are testaments to the risks that we never quite appreciated.

Given that, we seem to no longer pursue audacious dreams. I think that we are caught up in the cost/benefit ratios that big corporations have employed for years, much to our detriment. We don’t reward innovation and risk taking as we once did. He may be a curious person to quote in the context of the space program but I think we could do well to heed Daniel Burnham’s most famous quote in it’s entirety:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big. “

In the end I have to say I feel tremendously privileged to have been around in 1969, old enough to understand perfectly what was going on, but not old enough to have been at all cynical about the moon landing. It was one brief, shining moment in history when we really felt that anything was possible.

In the photographs above:

Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on the surface of the moon, taken by Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969.

The photograph of planet earth showing the continents of Africa, Antarctica and the Arabian Peninsula was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972.

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