It’s four in the morning July in '69
Me and my sister
We crept down like shadows
They’re bringing the moon right down to our sitting room
Static and silence and a monochrome vision
They’re dancing around
Slow puppets silver ground
And the world is watching with joy
We hear a voice from above and it’s history
And we stayed awake all night
"Monochrome" by The Sundays
How can forty years have passed so quickly?
Yes, forty years ago today, Apollo 11 climbed from its launch pad on its journey to change history.
And forty years ago Monday (July 20), Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar lander, and history was indeed changed. (And, as in the song, I stayed awake all night.)
Looking back, it seems that July of '69 was the culmination of my childhood -- all the moments spent building plastic spacecraft, reading science fiction, playing astronaut. All the launches and splashdowns watched, all the astronaut names memorized. I dreamed of going into space, and I knew -- I knew -- that now that astronauts were on the moon, it would not be long before the rest of us could go there as well. Surely by the time I was twenty... or thirty... or.... sigh.
Looking back, it also seems as if that was the last great moment I can remember of national, or international unity -- a moment in which we were drawn together not by sorrow, or shock (as on 9/11) but one in which we were united by joy and the giddy thrill of human accomplishment. Sure, there were those who claimed this as a uniquely American moment, and in some ways it was that. But even for Americans, this was not a political moment; it was neither Republican nor Democratic -- NASA was born in a Republican administration and boosted by two Democratic ones. Even though Nixon was President at the moment of the moon landing, it was not his moment to take credit (and -- amazingly enough, he knew this). The landing was, in all the ways that really counted, a triumph that transcended nationalism. ("One giant leap for mankind.") They celebrated in the streets of London, Paris, Tokyo, and elsewhere, as enthusiastically as we did in Times Square.
Yes, I know that the moon program was driven in large part by the dynamics of the Cold War. But the greatest legacy of the program is that it allowed us to look back at ourselves -- the small blue marble -- and see that what brings us together is much bigger than what sets us apart. It was that moment -- an entire planet with its hopes and dreams embodied in two men walking on another world -- that contributed in great part to the environmental movement, not to mention a generation of children that would grow up embracing technology and its ability to solve the world's problems. And, of course, Tang.
Would that the moment of unity could have lasted as well. Though I mourn the fact that I will likely never have the opportunity to go into space myself, I mourn more that there seems to be so few opportunities that can unite us as we were that July.
By the end of 1972, the Apollo program was over. By that time, the partisan divide, already widened by Vietnam but at least forgotten as we walked upon the moon, tore irreparably apart. Watergate. The Gas Crisis. The Iranian Hostage Crisis. Reagan, Bush One, Clinton. The market crash of 1987. Much bitterness, much finger pointing. There was a moment of brief celebration as the old Iron Curtain fell in 1989, but nothing compared to the moon.
I would like to believe that we are on the cusp of another such moment now, one in which man's ingenuity -- turned so effectively outward as we reached the moon little more than eight years since we first ventured into space -- now turns inward to solve the problems that beset us here at home: health care, equal rights, a just peace in all the places it is so sorely needed. This could be a defining moment, if we embrace it. Here's to hoping that this anniversary can renew our sense of what can be done when we do it together.
As a last note, allow me to re-recommend this excellent diary from a few days ago; it contains a bevy of great links for the Apollo-curious. I would especially encourage you to visit We Choose the Moon, a day-by-day recreation of that July (it's been put together by the Kennedy Library and Museum). Not only a curiosity for the nostalgic, it's worth a visit by those who were not alive then... perhaps you can pick up a sense of the awe we all felt as the landing drew near.
"We came in peace for all mankind."