Musings from Apollo 11’s 50th Anniversary

Image courtesy NASA

[I attempted to post this on 20 July, yesterday, but had access problems. That has been fixed.]

The greatest achievement in manned space travel happened 50 years ago today.  Fifty years!  That’s older than most people anymore, and figuratively longer still when counting those (like me) who were too young to recall it clearly.  When Neil Armstrong took that “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” it was the unquestioned crowning achievement of all history of human exploration.  I consider it still so, and even more remarkable that they were able to return safely with extra material gathered there.  Make no mistake, the return was every bit the difficult feat of the trip there, if not even more perilous!

That event united Americans of all stripes around the red and white ones of the flag that Buzz Aldrin (above) and Neil planted.  It captivated the entirety of humanity, in friendly and enemy nations alike, and gave youngsters the world over a sense of destiny and drive that ultimately inspired generations of scientists and engineers still working and contributing to their fields today.  The Apollo missions, directly and indirectly, yielded not just direct discoveries about the moon, but scientific and technological breakthroughs we now take for granted in everyday life.  The common STEM affirmation inspired in young scientists- and engineers-to-be was this:  “Yes, we can do this!  Yes, I can be a part of even greater things in the future!”  Imagine that, if you can.

For a moment, the troubles of the ‘60s and Vietnam War were set aside.  So was all the doubt and worry rendered by the Apollo 1 cabin fire that killed its crew a few months before I was born.  Folks rural and urban, black and white and every hue between, man or woman, educated and illiterate, rich and poor and everything between, famous or not, young or old, of every faith and origin, sat in awe and wonder at something absolutely inconceivable a decade prior to all but dreamers and a few early space planners.  Imagine that, if you can.

I was too little to sense this directly, but have gotten a remarkably consistent message from the stories of every single type of person alive at the time.  It was a moment of tension and concern and fear, and ultimately, jubilation and elation in victory over doubt.  In the middle of national strife and discord unknown since the Civil War, Americans of every makeup overflowed with national pride and a mass sense of accomplishment.  No matter for whom we voted, no matter our backgrounds or creeds, we united as one around this astounding feat.  Imagine that, if you can. 

For most of a decade, over 400,000 contributors tuned out the myriad sociopolitical troubles of the age and focused on one noble goal, including astronauts who went and who didn’t, engineers, astrophysicists, geologists, rocket scientists, electricians, support staff of countless roles.  NASA used earthbound mainframe computer complexes as big as houses.  These machines held less capacity and far slower speed than the phone I hold in my hand today.  Many of the old-school engineers and scientists involved still used manual tools in their calculations.  The United States of America put men on the moon, in part using pencils, paper, handwritten calculus, drafting tools, light tables, and slide rules!  Imagine that, if you can.

All of this effort did not contribute substantially to our national debt (the war was far costlier in fiscal and human terms).  We still found a way to pay without breaking the national treasury, and without the expense of war, might have done more.  Imagine that, if you can.

Before stepping onto the surface, while in the safely pressurized confines of the lander, Buzz took Holy Communion in honor of our Lord, Creator of the universe into which they had just gone farther than any human before.  He asked Mission Control and the world for a moment of silence to give thanks, and silently read from John 15:5: “As Jesus said: I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in Him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.”  In his own words, “I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”  The first thing any human ever consumed on another world was Jesus’ blood and body, broken for the sake of us.  Imagine that, if you can.

Over 600 million people worldwide watched the Apollo 11 landing on TV, and maybe I did too. Alas, I only have faint memories of later landings and moonwalks in the early 1970s, viewed on some fitful, secondhand Philco or Curtis Mathes black-and-white TV, passed to us by a friend of my dad’s who repaired them for a living.  One memory involved my dad slamming his large, strong hand on the side of one set repeatedly, trying to stop the scrolling and dodging of the picture during another landing broadcast. 

Other memories involve a couple of his friends and co-workers who thought it all was staged, and our arguing with them.  Those disputes were useless; neither of us yet had learned the wastefulness and futility of attempting rational dialogue with the irrational mind.  I’m not sure my dad ever learned, and it took me until about age 35.

Other recollections involve later viewings of the original footage on the fifth, then tenth, then twentieth anniversaries, and so on.  I’ve seen the films so many times, it’s as if I had watched the near-live version, and maybe I did, in my mom’s arms.  On one commemoration I saw in 1989, the narrators wondered why we hadn’t returned since the early morning of 14 December 1972, when the last boot sole of Gene Cernan left the lunar surface to climb into a return module.

Upon departing, Cernan said: 

As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

It’s 2019, and we’re still waiting. We don’t need to imagine that, for it’s factually and brutally true. Twelve men walked on the moon; only four still survive deep into their old age. Soon, no one alive will have set foot on another world. We in this world have the greatest computing capacity and base of scientific astrophysical understanding ever. The existence of poverty—a common, thoughtless and stupid rationale for not doing space science and exploration—is at nearly its lowest levels in history, worldwide, as are wars and war casualties. We possess the greatest of medical and space-exploration understanding and material wealth in history, and somehow still haven’t mustered the will and unity to return. This tells me we’re bankrupt not as much of money or intellect or ability, but aspiration, attitude, focus, and desire. That, folks, is absolutely pathetic!

Note: None of what I write here is to downplay the importance of the many spectacular robotic, automated and remotely controlled missions that will (and probably should, for safety’s and efficiency’s sake) dominate space travel for the rest of the time we can. Yet there’s a place for human exploration and conquest as well, not just in the manually scientific, observational, and utilitarian (mining, energy, etc.) realms, but in a more fundamental mindset of boots-on-the-ground, immersive experience, and the unique inspirations that come from witnessing those experiences unfold across the cosmos. We are made to seek God’s glory, so much of which is spread across the eternal vastness of outer space; therefore, we should. That involves risks, including all that come with the pioneering stages of reaching for the stars.

Again, I’m too young to remember most of Apollo.  Will I live to see the first American woman on the moon?  Anybody else at all?  Will my kids, or their kids?  Or will we continue to let sociopolitical grandstanding and divisiveness, the crisis-level yoke of out-of-control deficit spending and skyrocketing national debt on far less-productive endeavors, and the flip side of mankind’s exploratory nature (our tendency to harm and undermine ourselves) continue to thwart greatness our nation once and first expressed through Apollo 11?

There’s work to do.


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