I like to think that I was watching as Neil Armstrong let go of the ladder and settled into the lunar regolith. A toddler at the time, I certainly don’t remember it in any non-reconstructed sense, but increasingly I suspect that we never remember anything without prompting, reshaping and varying degrees of embellishment. I do recall, four short years later, Apollo 16 standing tall on the launchpad crawler, with Apollo 17 taking shape in a nearby hangar. With most of my life before first grade 1 long ago faded into an inscrutable fog, vivid recollection of Apollo as an ongoing narrative of my childhood is nothing short of remarkable.
This week marks 50 years since Armstrong’s footprint was first on the moon, and more than 46 since Gene Cernan’s was last. Untouched by the familiar earthly processes of erosion, they remain there, in stark contrast to our collective memories of them, unblemished to this day. Strewn about the six Apollo landing craft, a gold olive branch, a half dozen flags, a couple of golf balls, and three dune buggies.2
Of course we did not, as Apollo 8 and 13 astronaut Jim Lovell opined, “just decide to go.” We were chased there, sprinting breathlessly and headlong, by our political nemesis, the USSR, in a rabid quest for “nuclear superiority”, whatever the hell that means. If we go back, I am sure that it will be for reasons equally stupid.
Still, count me as one who, having said goodbye to gods and heroes, imagines Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong, listening to the scratchy countdown from their quasi-suicidal perch atop 35 stories of high explosives, as rare exemplars of self-sacrificial courage.
Not all Americans celebrated the landing five decades ago. I concede that spending $25 billion to send a few dudes 239,000 miles away for a night of primitive camping3 was a bit over the top, pun intended. Numerous contemporary critics argued that the money could be used to the greater good on the ground. Quite so, but what are the chances that it actually would be better spent, then as now?
In July of 1969, the blood of 400+innocents at the hands of the astronauts’ fellow soldiers was barely dry in My Lai, and within a year, National Guardsmen turned their rifles on a crowd of unarmed students at Kent State who found that sort of thing objectionable. The Apollo mission, though clearly undertaken in a national spasm of military fervor, was arguably the most peaceful event in the then brief, sanguine history of rocketry. If it constituted yet another way of reminding our enemies of a gun pointed permanently in their direction, at least on this occasion the trigger was not pulled. Only three men–astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee–died as a direct result of the Apollo program.4
I took advantage of a break in the clouds to look at the full moon last night. 50 years ago, citizens of Earth looked up to a waxing crescent with a previously unfathomable sense of proximity. Aldrin and Armstrong stood in their gaze, their boots half sunk in the ashy “soil” of Mare Tranquillitatis–the Sea of Tranquility5–one short stepping stone closer to the stars. I hope to live long enough to see humanity step even farther, despite knowing that there may only be a couple more stairs possible before we bump into the hard ceiling imposed by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and that my personal timeline begins and ends on the ground below.
Armstrong waxed hyperbolic. The nearest star lies 25,000,000,000,000 miles distant. Apollo’s “giant leap for mankind” traversed less than 1/100,000,000th of that span. It was decisive only in the same sense that scuffing the ground with one’s boot heel might eventually lead to a new Grand Canyon. A small step–one step at least–was taken that day, perhaps not so much forward from ladder to surface, but rather momentarily back from the vile, insatiable adult propensity to throw rocks, toward the more sublime, child-like impulse to climb them.