Monday, July 20, 2009

The Eagle has Landed

When I started college for the third time at the age of 32 I was required to (re)take a number of introductory courses, despite the 100+ credit hours I had already accumulated in my previous academic wanderings. Which is how I found myself in freshman English Composition with 20 or so people who still thought drinking 'til you puked was sexy. We were introducing ourselves on the first day, and I had just finished a summary of myself which I'm sure was both deep and engaging, when the girl next to me turned and exclaimed, "Wow! You were alive when they landed on the moon!"*

Yes, I was alive when they landed on the moon. In fact, I was nearly six feet tall, my voice was changing, and I was beginning to feel ways about stuff. I watched Apollo 11 take off, I watched them land, and I watched a grainy and semi-transparent Neil Armstrong step off the ladder and speak the words that caused 750 million people to turn to those closest to them, tears in their eyes and ask, "What'd he say?" I can still remember staring up at the moon, trying to wrap my mind around the idea that there were people standing there.

I guess this is one of those events that will forever separate those who remember it from those who don't, like Pearl Harbor, JFK's assassination or the
premier of American Idolfall of the Berlin Wall. Like those other events, the moon landing forever changed how humans viewed themselves and their subsequent experience, and the world was in some way fundamentally different from the way it was the day before.

It is almost impossible to convey the audacity of the act. It had been less than a decade since people had sent the first object of any kind beyond our atmosphere. Most Americans had never flown on an airplane and no one was really sure what the moon's surface was like. There were knowledgeable people who believed the LEM would sink into a powder many feet thick and never been seen again. Less than a year before the landing, humans had never laid eyes on the far side of the moon, or seen the Earth from a distance. If they tried to do this again today, they would never even get the contracts awarded in the time it took to develop the entire Apollo program.

These three men took off on a dangerous adventure in a largely untested craft because -- well, wouldn't you? I know I would have. It was the first time people had ever set foot on any solid surface other than the Earth. It was crossing a boundary that had never been crossed in Earth's three billion year history, and that could never be uncrossed. It is estimated that one fifth of the world's population watched on about one-twentieth of that number of televisions , and it was all anybody talked about. And I don't mean all they could talk about like Michael Jackson. I mean as soon as someone walked in the door of their home or their job or a restaurant they would ask how it was going, or if there was anything new.

I watched every launch of every American spacecraft from Mercury 9 through the first handful of Shuttle launches. I grieved every cancellation of the later Apollo missions, and mourned the subsequent loss of exploratory manned spaceflight. Because let's face it -- what they have done with the Shuttle and the Space Station is certainly important, but it's not exploration.

I still follow the space program pretty closely, and I check on the Mars rovers every now and then. They are still wandering around up there, more than 5 years after their warranty expired, doing important science and taking cool pictures. And I'm sure I will be watching the return to the Moon and/or the first manned trip to Mars, on the off chance that I'm still around by then. But for me, none of it could ever match the feeling I got hearing Armstrong's voice crackle out of the speaker on our big console television, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

* I think I'm beginning to understand why my first paper in that class was about the best method for committing suicide. I got an A+.


  1. i'm a geek because of the magic of Apollo... well, that and a predisposition to tear stuff apart and sometimes put it back together again...

  2. "I was beginning to feel ways about stuff."

    Absolutely brilliant. I'm jealous, and wish I'd thought of it first.