Hi, everyone. You may have noticed today’s a familiar date. In 1969, 47 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched the Eagle down onto the jagged sand at the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, and the world was forever changed. Here’s a video of the news coverage of the landing. As I write this, and think about it, it still makes me shiver. That mission, in fact, the entire Apollo program, happened before I was born. I’ve seen the videos. I’ve read the books. I’ve heard the interviews. Somehow, I feel like I was there, too.
The other day, on the anniversary of the launch, I sat down with a glass of stout — something a bit too thick for these warm July days– and watched Walter Cronkite guide America through it. He gave some calm to what I’m sure was an anxious day; a good sort of anxiety, but anxious nonetheless. As everyone watched, soon, a gigantic tower, hundreds of feet tall, countless tons of metal, all fuel, engines, and gas tanks, all but the tiniest bit at the top where those three astronauts sat, would come to life and disappear into the sky.
I’ve wondered what it must have been like for them to sit there, waiting in their seats. How much of what was going through their mind was caught up in wondering if all of it, the efforts of the many thousands of people around the world who were involved with Apollo, would all come together? Would it work? I’d guess very little. There was an attitude throughout the program, from the people who designed and built the engines all the way down to the people who sewed the Apollo patches onto the astronauts’ spacesuits that this whole thing might fail, but if it did, they’d be damned if it was because of something they did.
In a very real way, much more than when a frustrated baseball calls into a radio show and says “we should trade” this guy or that, or “we need to win the next three games,” it was something for everyone to be proud of. Assorted dignitaries and world leaders came from all over to be at the launch. I imagine the viewing stands filled with people in flowing robes, exciting hats, wooden shoes, and all manner of local dress—an international celebration on the central Florida coast. There was politics, of course; the Cold War, I understand, but it gave the world something to be optimistic about; something to look forward to during what was also a difficult time. This was a real effort. A “we” effort. We did this. As the astronauts themselves have said, they were just the most visible part of an incredible team.
It all seems unbelievable and surreal: we, the world, sent people to the Moon. Consider that for a minute. We got them into orbit nine times, and got them to the ground six times, and all of them, all of them, came back in fine shape, and the tiniest bit younger than they’d have been had they stayed home.
These days, opening the paper, or the Internet, or however you do it, it’s hard. The headlines aren’t quite so bright. The dreams, teamwork, optimism and ingenuity from years ago has been replaced with anger, hatred, pessimism, and violence. It’s everywhere. The world seems to be coming apart frighteningly fast. These are anxious times.
I wonder where things went wrong. I wonder why we’ve stopped working together. I wonder why we decided the better approach is to spend so much time and so much energy with these horrible things, everywhere, when we know from experience that we can do so much more if we don’t. I wonder how we went from being a futuristic, space-faring society; dreamers who could do the impossible, turned, and became a society of violent, enraged, and hate-filled people who want nothing more than to complain about and tear each other down. I wonder why we stopped working together; stopped moving ourselves forward. I wonder how it is the most futuristic thing people have ever done happened almost 50 years ago.
These days, tonight, if you like, you can see the Moon, a gorgeous gibbous, almost imperceptibly past full, waning away in the late night skies. It’s our nearest neighbor in the universe, but it’s far enough that the Moon you see is the Moon of a second and a half ago. It takes that long for the sunlight it’s reflecting to get to your eye. That might not seem like much, but when you’re talking about distances measured relative to the speed of light, which is also the speed of radio waves, it’s worth pondering. You can see the Sea of Tranquility off to the right-hand side as you look up, lying on your back on the hood of your Galaxie 500, as it begins to settle into the lunar twilight.
You can’t see footsteps or any sign at all that people were there, but you know they were. You can see the place where it was all going on when everyone all over the world stopped what they were doing to watch and be proud of what we accomplished. You can say it. You can tell your friends. You can tell your kids. “People walked there.” People walked somewhere so far away that their only connection to home, the answers to the simplest questions took three seconds. And no one fought over it.
Not far away from the Moon in the skies, a short turn of your neck to the right, you can see Mars. From 55 million miles away, it looks like nothing more than a bright red dot. Of course, there’s been lots of talk about missions there. Space X, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, who knows who else, might take us there some day. The magic is happening and the dreams are starting to be made there. I wonder if we’ll ever do it.
We can. These tiny differences. seem so big, but we can put them aside. Better yet, we can use them to push ourselves further, push ourselves farther. We can put that energy to use for good, something more than anger and violence, and to come together again. We can choose a better path for ourselves. The optimism could be alive for us all to feel again, if we want to. Imagine the newspaper headlines.