New to this blog?
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Neil Armstrong took this photo of Buzz Aldrin -- but that's Armstrong's reflection in the visor
(Photo courtesy of NASA)
The death of Neil Armstrong reminds me what a shame it is that people can’t travel back in time. Granted, the temptation to indulge in a little revisionist history-making to modify undesirable events in the future (our current and not-so-distant past) could be overwhelming -- at the risk of potentially disastrous consequences -- but if we assume the physics of time-travel would prevent any such meddling, it would be fascinating to see and better understand what things were really like back then. Absent the possibility of time-travel, all we have are written and oral histories to aid in our understanding, and that’s not always enough.
True awareness and a reliable memory don’t develop much before a child reaches the age of four or five, which means you’d have to be at least 47 years old to have any real memories of Apollo 11 and the first manned landing on the moon. This leaves two full generations out of the historical loop – millions of Americans and countless millions more around the world for whom “man landing on the moon” is ancient history, a dusty rumor, something that happened well before they were born and thus irrelevant to their world view.
This is the real shame -- so many people will never be able to fully grasp the heady magic of that event.*
I was just coming of age during the decade-long space race between the US and Soviet Union, and as one of those rocket-kids who fully embraced the technological challenge (my own home-built rockets blew up a lot more often than those of NASA’s early days), I was totally hooked, reading every book on rockets and space travel in the school library and beyond. Armed with this self-education, I thought I understood what those early astronauts were up against, but while watching Walter Cronkite (the foremost television news anchor of the day) all but turn blue reporting the descent of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin towards the lunar surface on that fateful day in 1969, I too forgot to breathe.
Landing on the moon was no easy task. Faced with a primitive, balky computer that seemed determined to put their fragile craft down on dangerously rocky territory, those astronauts were forced to take manual control -- and with only thirty seconds of fuel left in the tank, settled in for gentle landing.**
Words cannot adequately express how thrilling that moment really was. You really did have to be there.
That we couldn’t actually see much beyond the avuncular Cronkite, some crude animated simulations, and hundreds of technicians in their white shirts and ties staring nervously into computer monitors didn’t matter -- this was riveting television. In an unprecedented historical event that never really seemed possible despite all of NASA’s calm, techo-jargon explanations, two human beings had just landed on the fucking moon! Several hours later, murky black and white images of the first man to step on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor were broadcast across the planet, briefly uniting humanity in a manner and to an extent never experienced before or since.
That, my young Gen X, Gen Y, and Generation Smart-Phone friends, was a shared moment unlike any in the history of the human race.
Over the course of a decade, the incredibly exciting high-wire act of the space program unfolded before our eyes on television. Later Apollo missions took Lunar Rovers – essentially, high-tech golf carts -- to the moon for more extensive exploration, and the final mission (Apollo 17) provided a dramatic live video feed as the Lunar Module containing two astronauts fired its rockets and rose from the moon's craggy surface to rendezvous with the Lunar Orbiter and begin the journey home to Earth. It’s a great shot -- done with what might have been the first “hot head” in television, mounted on the Lunar Rover -- tilting up and zooming in to follow the craft as it rose into the black void of space.
With that, it was over. There would be no Apollo 18. Manned missions to the moon slipped into history.
Robert Lloyd wrote a beautiful elegy for the LA Times, summed up with this lovely paragraph:
“Walking on the moon is now something that people used to do, in the distant past, like macramé, decoupage and the Hustle. (A moonwalk is just another dance step now, and an old one at that.) Before very long, there will be no one left alive who's walked any ground but the Earth's, and eventually the adventure that was Apollo 11 will fade out of personal human memory. There will just be the pictures, then, as we saw them in the summer of '69, ghostly and blurry, colorless and incomprehensible, an infant's glimpse of a new world.”
Still, those pictures and video are visual records of a time when the impossible actually happened, and our collective definition of what is possible expanded by an order of magnitude. Unless and until some nation manages to land people on Mars (an adventure that seems increasingly unlikely given the perilous state of our world – and which in any event, I don’t expect to see in my lifetime), most of this planets inhabitants will never have a clue what an epic day that really was.
Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, but putting him there required a massive group effort from a legion of designers, engineers, and countless technicians. I wish those of you in the current generations could have experienced the magic of that time, but without time travel, the best you can do is take a look at those amazing pictures and video clips on Utube. If and when you do, give some thought to what all those driven, dedicated people accomplished 43 years ago. Their perseverance through disasters and tragedy to ultimate success is a lesson for us all, and worthy of respect from every generation.
Other than the ongoing destruction of our own planet, landing people on the moon and bringing them safely home remains mankind's signature achievement to this point in history. It might not add up to much in the cosmic scheme of things, but considering where we came from -- apes howling in the trees -- it's nothing short of astonishing.
* A similar thing happened to my own generation, which grew up with airplane travel an accepted part of everyday life. We missed those early trial-and-error days during which man learned to fly with the birds, at long last fulfilling yearnings that had haunted the imagination of humanity for centuries.
** From what I've read, the on-board computers that guided Apollo 11 to the moon and back were considerably less powerful -- and vastly less sophisticated -- than the chips that control modern automobiles.