Remembering Apollo 11

We didn’t do this on a sound stage, we did it live on-location!

Having been born in 1962, the American space program was an important series of events in my life.  In the summer of 1969, we saw the culmination of a great event, man’s landing on the moon and returning to Earth.  It was something that had been ingrained in us as a people.  Every launch was a special event on TV.  Walter Cronkite (and Wally Schirra) took complicated information and fed it to us in a way that every person could understand. We all came to understand the complexities of docking, heat shields, communications lags, etc, as if we were part of the team going to the lunar surface.  Classes were interrupted when Saturn V’s lifted off and when the capsules returned to our planet.  There was a sense, even with us as kids, that this was important and that somehow, we were all a part of it.

There was a whole lot of negative stuff happening around us…Vietnam, peace protests, civil rights marches, a hotly contested Presidential election, hippies, Charles Manson – but cutting through all of that was the space race against the Russians.  America was behind something big, and it was a matter of pride and prestige.  There were detractors who claimed that the money could be better spent elsewhere, but in July of 1969 with the launch of Apollo 11, we rallied as a nation to wish the astronauts well on their perilous journey.

My parents bought Tang, because that was what the astronauts drank.  We sipped it in glasses from the Marathon station that were red-white-and-blue with images of the Apollo missions on them.  My toys included Major Matt Mason, a heroic astronaut action figure.  The space race was everywhere.

I watched the Apollo 11 liftoff from a black and white TV set in my parents non-airconditioned house in Battle Creek, Michigan.  There were only two networks for us, we didn’t get ABC until a year or two later – and you could only get PBS out of Lansing if the weather was right.  You had to adjust the rabbit-ear antenna just right to get a good picture. I was the family remote control for the TV.  That’s how we rolled.

I remember the landing on the moon and the relief that washed over us and over Walter Cronkite when we heard, “Tranquility Base here…the Eagle has landed.”

I, like millions of others, saw the grainy images of man setting foot on the moon. The entire world watched.  Factories stopped production so workers could see it happen live.   Humanity had a singular positive focus for one of the few times in my life.  It was incredible to experience.

When that flag was planted on the moon we knew that we had beat the Russians.  This was a triumph for all Americans.

I remember wanting to be an astronaut when I grew up.  That was what the space program did – it inspired people.  As I grew older I realized with my eyesight and lack of other qualifications, I would never get a chance to fly in space.  I didn’t have the right stuff.  I accepted that and owned it.  As the years passed I found my own way to get into space, by writing science fiction.  With my words, I traveled to hundreds of planets.  Determination always wins out.  While I will never wear a NASA patch (or StarFleet) on my sleeve, I have gone far as a writer because of our space program. I have never forgotten what drove me.

Looking back I know that the landing on the moon was not just about beating the Soviets – it was about having a single purpose as a nation.  It wasn’t about moon rocks, but about retooling of our nation to be a technological powerhouse.  It provided countless jobs in new and exciting fields.  It was America at its best when we were coping sociologically with incredible problems and turmoil.

Now that we look back at five decades past and the accomplishment there, that sense of pride has surged forward.  Space has brought us many triumphs and some gut-wrenching tragedies.  We let the momentum of our landing on the moon slip through our fingers.  Mars seems further away than ever.

In my later years, when I wrote, Terror of the Autumn Skies, I wrote Neil Armstrong.  In one biography he said that in his youth, he admired the subject of my book, Frank Luke Jr.  I was hoping to get a quote from him about Luke.  His secretary wrote me a nice letter back saying that Mr. Armstrong did not give quotes but appreciated my request and looked forward to my book.  He was a class act.  It was a rejection that makes me smile in memory, even to this day.

When my kids got older, we watched HBO’s, From the Earth to the Moon.  My daughter Victoria loved the Apollo 12 episode.  I reached out to astronaut Al Bean and he sent her an autographed photo.  She still has it framed.  Even decades after their missions, these men continued to inspire future generations to look into the blackness of space and wonder what is out there, and when will we go and find out.

Today that feeling of pride in our country we all had then would be labeled as, “dangerous nationalism.”  There would be factions in our society that would be upset that we didn’t have a diverse enough crew on the flight or in mission control.  The planting of the American flag couldn’t be allowed in our present-day culture.  They would even ban the ticker-tape parades because they are not very environmentally conscious.  We couldn’t spend the money on the program because our elected representatives would want to spend it elsewhere. Can you imagine Congress aligning to a single goal for a decade?

Some would say that this new thinking is progressive, that it is better.  As someone who experienced the landing on the moon from a tiny, hot living room in Michigan, I can tell you that such thinking is wrong.  There is something to be said about being proud about your country and what it can accomplish when we work together towards a common goal.  Those that claim that having pride in your nation is inherently wrong or evil; they cannot take from me what I experienced and felt in that summer of 1969.  A part of me wishes to feel that again in my lifetime, but as the years pass I feel it, like our voyages to space, becoming rare, commercialized, and ploddingly slow.  For those of you that were not able to experience the moon landing, I feel for what you have been denied.

Finally, thank you Neil, Mike and Buzz.  You, and the tens of thousands of men and women involved in flight successful brought us together for something positive, challenging, and inspirational.  We will never forget the great risks you took and the indelible ink you wrote on the pages of mankind’s history.

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