• The Race to the Moon

    January 14, 2023 // 6 Comments »

    Artemis just took off for the moon. What might become of it?

    I was only three when John Kennedy died, and so his famous 1962 pronouncement that we would go to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard, was already history. But the picture books I got on birthdays always included him in the history of space exploration. Those books made sure every kid knew the progression that was going to get “us” to the moon. They changed us and with us, America. More than speeches that looked like outtakes from Pink Floyd’s The Wall from Philadelphia, we need Artemis.

    Our past journey started with Mercury, baby steps mostly proving we could launch men into space. Then Gemini, a long proof-of-concept program to try out the technology of docking in space. It only became clear to young me what they were doing many years later; this was an era nearly pre-computer and to see if something would work you had to build it and try it out. No simulations, not even pocket calculators. Can two spacecraft find each other in orbit and connect? Well, you had to send them up and see what happened. And you had, as a nation, to believe first such a thing was possible.

    Then Apollo, those unbelievably large multi-stage rockets topped by a tiny capsule. I knew how they worked, their relative sizes, their roles and details. Gas stations gave out little prizes back then to attract customers, and no one did it better than Gulf. With a fill-up they gave you an actual paper model of the Lunar Lander. I was frustrated to no end trying to assemble it, cutting and folding paper parts. For some reason instead of the obvious Elmer’s glue my mother handed me a roll of cellophane tape. The model died a horrible fire cracker-related death.

    In the 1960s there were only three TV stations and they all had massive news departments aimed at producing the nightly news. Almost every family ritualistically watched “the news” every night. The people doing all the work were serious journalists, mostly unattractive older men who had learned their craft on radio. They did not seek to shock, and took their roles very seriously. We know now they were far too trusting of the government, far too willing to not report on certain embarrassing things, but their intentions were, however misguided, coming from a good place. The space program was the biggest story of their generation, the capstone of the American Century, and the natural end result to Manifest Destiny. It was biased coverage, but with a big heart.

    The unhappy parts of rockets were known, too. We had nuclear war drills when I was in elementary school where at the sound of a siren we’d grab our coats for radiation protection and dive under our desks to wait for the bright flash. This was all taken extremely seriously. Yet little effort was made to explain why Russia would attack our elementary school in Ohio. The insidious thing was we were told the exact same rockets the Russians would use to nuke our school were the ones they were using to try to get to the moon ahead of us. Those sneaks! America on the other hand developed one set of rockets for peaceful space exploration and another for “defense,” which we never thought through enough to realize involved Russian elementary schools, too.

    By the time the Apollo program was in full gear every launch from Cape Kennedy was televised live. We’d watch from our elementary school classrooms. We kids knew when these launches would occur; to get this information was one of my first motivations to starting to read the newspaper. By the time the countdown reached 10 seconds every kid in the room would be chanting the numbers. When the count stopped for a moment to fix some mechanical issue, we all let out a disappointed awww… and then fidgeted while the minutes of waiting seemed forever. Then, blast off! Without fail that night we would demand to be let into the backyard to stare up at the sky and purr about the astronauts being up there somewhere. And someday, “we” would walk on the moon. A long way from today’s Space Force being a punch line on Late Night.

    Things got completely out of hand the weeks before Apollo 11, the mission to put men on the lunar surface. Maps of the lunar surface were in every newspaper, big two-page things, and every kid begged for a lunar globe (no one I know ever got one.) The news was about this event alone, every page, and every kid soaked it up and then when we gathered outside to compare notes in case someone had picked up some minor detail the others had missed, like if you’ve ever heard adults talking serious baseball, all the statistics and photographic details of past games. I then watched Neil Armstrong touch his left foot upon the moon’s surface at 10:56 pm July 20, 1969.

    I was too young to understand the questions now widely asked about the space program. Couldn’t the money have been better spent at home? Did the research really match the outlay, giving us Tang in stores but otherwise devoted to expensive manned spaceflight which would soon fizzle out? Wasn’t it all just a big Cold War stunt, two countries vying to see who had the biggest rocket while the world burned in Vietnam?

    What I remember was a country that saw a single, good thing happen together. While in 2022 when the majority of young people say their most desired job is Influencer, kids then wanted to walk in space. Few of us ever did of course. What if dreams don’t come true? Are we better off for having dreamed them at least for one hot Ohio summer?

    For me, it all mattered. I saw something unfold, felt a part of it however naïve that was to think. It allowed me to see what smart people could accomplish, kind of like climbing a mountain just to do it. I’m much less sure about the greater good, the long run impact, but I know I took something with me from that summer I still have. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s history. Things worked then in America. It sounds like an exaggeration but it isn’t. We didn’t yet live in a society that had given up on itself. We put a man on the moon, after all.

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