Published on July 22, 2019

moon landing

Life After Armstrong

Over the past few days you may have heard, “Where were you on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon?” The 50th anniversary of that epic moment is this weekend.

Depending on the age of the person answering that question, you probably either heard the story of a “flashbulb moment,” remembered with such vivid detail that it could have happened yesterday, or the simple declaration, “I wasn’t even born yet.” Both are answers that at least acknowledge that something amazing happened on that day 50 years ago.

And it was amazing—an accomplishment unprecedented in human history. It had only been in May of 1961 that President John F. Kennedy had compellingly declared, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Just about eight years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were planting an American flag on the moon’s surface.

Margaret Lazarus Dean, writing about this immensely difficult and ultimately successful process, spells out how hard this task really was: “In the eight years that unspooled between Kennedy’s speech and Neil Armstrong’s first historic bootprint, NASA, a newborn government agency, established sites and campuses in Texas, Florida, Alabama, California, Ohio, Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia, and the District of Columbia; awarded multi-million-dollar contracts and hired four hundred thousand workers; built a fully functioning moon port in a formerly uninhabited swamp; designed and constructed a moonfaring rocket, spacecraft, lunar lander, and space suits; sent astronauts repeatedly into orbit, where they ventured out of their spacecraft on umbilical tethers and practiced rendezvous techniques; sent astronauts to orbit the moon, where they mapped out the best landing sites; all culminating in the final, triumphant moment when they sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to step out of their lunar module and bounce about on the moon, perfectly safe within their space suits. All of this, start to finish, was accomplished in those eight years.” (Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight)

Fifty years later it can all seem like so much ancient history. And yet, for all of us—whether we were alive and aware of the moon landing or not—the world changed irrevocably on that day. The cold war was in full bloom, and winning “the moon race” was perceived as key, not just for who would control space exploration but also as an indication of the prevailing power of our democratic system of government. (Did winning the moon race help lead to the fall of communism? Perhaps so.)

For a people whose energy and resources had been focused on stopping aggression in World War II, the moon race provided a rare and galvanizing positive focus. The whole country got behind the space effort. We weren’t stopping someone—we were conquering space! (Star Trek first appeared in 1966—a result of a nation caught up in the idea of space travel.)

And for the first time in history, man was able to look from the surface of the moon, back across the darkness, and see our own planet, 238,900 miles away. Those pioneer astronauts were our eyes and ears. And while we now see images of earth from space on a routine basis, it was with true awe and wonder that we looked at those first pictures and listened to the words of our intrepid explorers.

If I have a wish on this 50th anniversary, it is that some of that wonder and awe would express itself in how we view each other and how we care for this planet, our only home. While Armstrong and Aldrin piloted the lunar lander onto the surface of the moon, astronaut Michael Collins remained in orbit in the Apollo command module, 60 miles above the surface. His experience and memory from Apollo 11 is not about the moon, but about the earth itself. “The thing that really surprised me was that it projected an air of fragility,” Collins says. “And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.”

While remembering the moon shot this weekend, I’m still most thankful for this tiny, shiny, beautiful, and fragile planet we call home.

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