This is what made America Great
(except for #7)
Today is the 50th anniversary of one of America’s greatest achievements. Watched it live, the moon landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, on a 12-inch, portable b&w Philco in our first rented college house with my two roommates and much beer at UW-Oshkosh.
Fuzzy picture on top of fuzzy images. Which is why you’ve got to see some of the retrospectives available these days; the visual clarity is as breathtaking as are the achievements of science and as inspirational as the quiet human courage.
Got to be honest, my crowd paid more attention to Vietnam and the so-called War at Home, pot and parties. So we appreciate the near saturation of 50th anniversary coverage of all things space and we’re pleased that the current President is committed to raising the profile of NASA.
Here are eleven (for the Apollo 11) personal take-aways, for what they are worth.
1) Christmas Eve 1968. Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders went faster (24,000 mph) and farther from the earth (240,000 miles) and closer to the moon than any human. It was the first orbit of the moon. On December 24, the three read from the opening of the Book of Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form …”
Was it a different age? Reading the Bible on a government mission? Didn’t seem to hurt the space program or America.
They ‘will be mourned’ — future tense
2) The statement speech writer William Safire wrote for President Nixon should Aldrin and Neil Armstrong be stranded on the moon. What’s most chilling is that they would just languish there until their oxygen ran out — remaining alive even as the President would have read this speech to the nation.
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
3) Do not miss PBS’ three-part American Experience series, Chasing the Moon, which reproduced the actual audio recording of the last moments of Apollo 1 in a pre-launch test when doomed astronaut Gus Grissom swore “Jesus Christ” at all the mounting malfunctions seconds before one of the three astronauts shouted, “Get us out of here” as the capsule burst into flame.
Also try to catch For all Mankind, the story of the 24 men who traveled to the moon, “told in their words, in their voices, using the images of their experiences.”
4) Human emotions. From the same PBS series showed the angst on the wives of the Apollo 8 astronauts as they waited out the first mission to leave earth’s orbit as it rounded the moon. That was the original genius of NASA — to humanize science. A trope the Soviets missed. Life magazine spreads on the astronauts, their fighter pilot heroics, the rigorous training, the spectacular science — sure. But these were men with families. The three Apollo 11 astronauts, for instance, were all age 39.
Still the best movie about space travel was Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, faithfully depicting the near-disastrous mission.
What really gave it its power was the human element, something lacking in both 2001 Space Odyssey and Matt Damon’s The Martian. The scene of Tom Hanks as James Lovell (UW-Madison graduate) wiping the condensation off the capsule window looking down on our blue marble while his wife looked up into the night sky. Magic. You cared about these people.
That, too, was NASA’s genius. Beginning with the original Mercury 7, the agency promoted the astronauts as superstars of science but also as human beings. Americans, not cogs in a godless, “scientific” political system worshipping the state, not exalting the individual.
‘Because it IS difficult’
5) The absolutely critical role John F. Kennedy played. His 1961 challenge was audacious. “Put a man on the moon before the decade was out and bring him back safely to earth.” This was a game changer in the race to space because rocket man Wernher von Braun knew that the Soviet Union, then far in the lead in the space race, would have to devise entirely new rockets and systems.
Even more striking today is the challenge JFK issued at Rice Stadium, Houston on 09-12-62: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Classic JFK. Who talks like that, anymore? Put a Democrat on the ballot like that and I just might vote him (or her).
Black activists demanded the resources for space be brought back to earth. So glad JFK, LBJ, and Nixon did not listen. Those resources were brought back to earth in a thousand different way well beyond that awful orange drink, Tang. You’re using one of those technologies right now.
6) Neil Armstrong’s quote was meant to be “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Think about it; doesn’t that make more sense? Neil Armstrong was a man, but that one-man leaped for all humanity.
7) Now it can be told. The shameful discrimination shown against the man who would have been the first black astronaut among the original Mercury crew. Chasing the Moon blamed the iconic Chuck Yeager for shunning Ed Dwight during flight training. The key committees of the House and Senate were controlled by southern segregationists.
8) Two forgotten visionaries:
• Wernher von Braun was a household name 50 years ago but largely forgotten until the anniversary. He developed the Saturn V rocket that took us to the moon. We plucked the former Nazi and 1200 of his best scientists out of defeated Germany where he led Hitler’s V-2 rocket program. Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr [i.e., “Baron”] von Braun wrote a memoir, I Shoot for the Stars, which comedian Mort Sahl said should be subtitled, “But sometimes I hit London.”
• Second forgotten hero: The New York Times in 1969 corrected a 1920 editorial that mocked the father of American rocketry, Robert Godard, for extrapolating on Newton’s Third Law of Motion — for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The NY Times thought a rocket’s thrust needed something to push against, such as an atmosphere. Not the first nor the last time the Times has gotten it wrong.
9) That blue marble in the sky. The first astronauts to circle the moon did not expect the spectacular sight rounding that orb — an earth rise. “We had done all this work to go to the moon and what we really discovered was the earth.” — Bill Anders, Apollo 8. His Christmas eve 1968 photograph inspired the Earth Day movement.
10) Two more quotes. I don’t know if they represent artistic license but they’re too good to pass up. James Lovell’s elderly mother, played by the real-life mother of Ron Howard in his movie Apollo 13, to her worried granddaughter:
- Blanche Lovell: Are you scared?
Susan Lovell: [nods]
Blanche Lovell: Well don’t you worry, honey. If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it.
- Marilyn Lovell: Blanche, these nice young men are going to watch the television with you. This is Neil Armstrong and this is Buzz Aldrin.
Neil Armstrong: Hi.
Blanche Lovell: Are you boys in the space program, too?
11) Buzz Aldrin, the inspiration for Buzz Lightyear, 17 years ago at age 72, clocking a smart-ass punk who kept getting in his face alleging the moon landing was faked on a Hollywood movie set. (More here.)
Blaska’s Bottom Line: Now THAT is the Right Stuff!