Forty years ago this Monday the human race first walked upon the Moon.
Do you remember? With all the media this year, it would be hard not to.
July 20, 1969, was one of those days that every single one of us alive (and old enough to be reflective in any way) will remember exactly where we were, and precisely what we were doing.
The very moment Apollo 11’s Lunar Module, Eagle, touched down on the Moon, my parents, my aunt and uncle on my mother’s side, my brother, and I were in the family station wagon on the road from Phoenix to a vacation stop-over in Sin City itself, Las Vegas, Nevada. We were on the highway passing one of the few towns in the endless stretches of high desert in the northwest corner of Arizona, Kingman, and were listening to the only radio station we could find.
Tinny voices speaking to us from across a quarter of a million miles gave us a dry, technical play-by-play of the most significant event in human history.
Eagle: Four forward. four forward. Drifting to the right a little. twenty feet, down a half … Contact Light. Engine arm is off. (A pause.) Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
Houston: Roger, Twan… Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.
… and then the station cut instantly to a local high school basketball game.
The most momentous event in the history of the human race, and these brain-damaged idiots cut away to the most trivial local event imaginable.
I could have killed.
It wasn’t until we got closer to Vegas — at least two hours — before we learned the fate of the Eagle.
That night, in our hotel room, the whole group was clustered around the television watching the fuzzy video images from a camera deployed from the side of the Lunar Module. The ghostly image of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder held us mesmerized, and then we heard those first words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.”
It was beyond magical. It was a transcendent moment for the human species, and every American, no matter how cynically opposed to the Program he or she may have been, must have felt a secret hint of pride.
We did it.
If I am remembering correctly, the hotel room was on the second floor, and we were looking out across an entrance drive to another hotel that had an outside elevator modeled to look roughly like an Apollo spacecraft. Kitschy yes, but my young and overheated imagination transformed this gimmick into a Moon mission launching every few minutes. In the hours my brother and I were stranded at the hotel while the adults went gambling, the Moon landing and the ersatz Moon rocket across the way were a perfect distraction.
At one point my aunt teased my brother and me about watching all the pretty girls entering and exiting the hotel complex on the walkways below — and I feel confident my brother was — but I was three years younger and at that moment girls were genuinely the furthest thing from my mind.
I was not in Las Vegas. I was on the surface of the Moon.
Naturally, I had to ride this Apollo elevator myself, and probably nagged my parents until they let me do it. I was easily entertained.
Yes, I was a space nut. As I’ve mentioned before here, I wasn’t the typical boy-kid. The Boy Scouts-camping-fishing-hunting man-over-nature silliness didn’t cut it, or the compete-to-destroy-or-humiliate stupidity that most sports degenerated into, or the Fords-vs.-Chevies piddley male testosterone stuff. No, I was utterly captivated by the biggest symbol of Cold War virility ever — the Moon Race.
In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s typically tasteless but dead-on essays, “The Big Space F*ck,” he compared the launch of the Saturn V moon rocket to the biggest sexual event imaginable (fill in your own blanks there — I’m trying to keep this PG rated, okay?)
Now, after all these years, I wonder if our success in reaching the Moon was in fact the beginning of the end of the vitality of American society, and possibly that of the entire world. The drama and tension of the nine year drive that lead up to our achieving this epochal moment, the resolution of a yearning that had gnawed at our collective consciousness as long as we have had one, would leave an aftermath that could be nothing short of anticlimactic. The following mission Apollo 12 was met by yawns (except of course, by me and all the other space nuts) and Apollo 13 only garnered attention because of the drama of the mission’s life-and-death crisis.
The conquest of space changed in a few short days from a romantic adventure to an overpriced engineering problem.
As a species, we said to ourselves okay, we did it. Now what?
Mars would have been a more expensive retread of the Moon missions, and the call of the stars was too unimaginable, too unsurmountable a challenge.
As far as space flight was concerned, we were done.
The Powers That Be looked at the cultural Nielson Ratings, saw the dismal share, and canceled the Moon Program early in its second season.
And they didn’t even give us any blasted summer reruns.
• • •
Space is part of our future, but Space is not our future. Space will eventually become part of the greater arena of the human experience.
Space is not the final frontier. We are. Our individual destinies, our personal quests for meaning are our final frontiers, and if Space is to play a part in these, so be it.
For Space to become a meaningful part of the phenomenon called the human race, the effort has to be turned from being an overpriced engineering problem into an engineering problem that is ultimately cost-effective. When Space becomes profitable, the journey will truly begin.
With any journey, there has to be a first step. No, we probably were not ready to meet this challenge in a way that would prove meaningful for the lasting benefit of the human race, but we as a species had to scale the clouds and leave our mark upon the heavens. And some day — hopefully with hard pragmatic justification — we will do so again.
I’m sure there are many who would look askance at this momentous event and ask: was it worth it?
To those who would ask this fine question I would answer: of course it was, you brain-damaged idiot. Get out of my face and take your sorry ass back to Kingman.
Copyright © 2007-2009, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
This article is revised from a previous version (no longer available) which was published on this site, July 21, 2007.