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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Tranquility Base

Hard to believe it's been 35 years...

Even harder to believe sometimes that many of the people I know and with whom I work weren't even born on the 20th of July 1969.

There are certain events that shape our lives.

For my parents it was probably President Kennedy's assassination

For their parents, Pearl Harbor

For theirs, Armistice Day

For those born later, it was Challenger

For the next generation it will be 9/11

I feel fortunate that the most memorable moment of my life so far was one that didn't involve destruction or chaos or pain and suffering, but was one of triumph, of excitement, as dark, grainy flickering images on a television screen burst forth with the promise of the future, and however briefly, with the hope that things would always be better than that moment. We'd landed on the moon! And for an eight year-old kid who had only the vaguest notions of things like Viet Nam, or domestic political turmoil or generational conflict, it was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Can you even imagine?

The memory will live with me for the rest of my life: sitting in front of the TV in our living room at 755 Maple St., Lake Oswego, OR, 1:17 p.m. PDT, July 20, 1969. CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite & Wally Schirra (one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts) relating a play-by-play of the events unfolding more than a quarter of a million miles above our heads as Apollo 11 Mission Commander Neil Armstrong guided a spindly, delicate, bug-like craft down to the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor. I was lying on my stomach in front of the screen, my eyes sucking in every image, my ears soaking up each pronouncement like a sponge, as the static-y time-delayed voice of Lunar Module Pilot (an odd title, since the LMP never actually handled the controls) Buzz Aldrin called out altitude, forward and downward velocity, fuel consumption, while far, far away, countless legions of their fellow human beings held their breath awaiting the outcome of their efforts.

After tense moments, the tell-tale "beep" of transmission came across the airwaves: "Houston, Tranquilty Base here. The Eagle has landed." And then all at once we let go of that one held breath, the single most massive collective sigh of relief ever expressed by humanity. You could almost feel the headiness as three billion pairs of lungs simultaneously drew air from the atmosphere.

Can you feel it?

On the screen, Schirra was grinning like a kid who'd just been given the greatest birthday present ever, Cronkite simply took off his glasses and wiped his eyes in an uncharacteristic emotional display, but for those of us raised from infancy on his somber, sing-songy baritone, we shared his sense of awe. Words had failed him, for once in his life, and he (and we) were content to let the impact of the moment settle on us like spring rain. Then the picture switched to the inside of Mission Control Center in Houston, the nerve center of the Apollo mission, where things were strangely calm and business-like. Just because two men had landed on the moon didn't mean it was time to start celebrating; there was still a lot of work to do, and like the trained professionals they were, they followed the minutely detailed sequence of steps required to ascertain the condition of the spacecraft and prepare for the possibility of an emergency liftoff. Plenty of time for cigars and back-slapping when the job was done.

Thankfully, their caution proved unnecessary, despite the fact that Armstrong, in wresting manual control of the LM from it's overloaded computer (which possessed the equivalent computing power of a modern pocket calculator)) had overshot his planned landing site by several miles, and had been forced to guide the tiny craft through a boulder-strewn field before finally locating a suitable alternative, setting Eagle down on the lunar surface with less than 30 seconds of reserve fuel to spare.


There they were, safely on the moon. Two Americans carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire world along with them like tiny butterflies wrapped in rice paper, so delicate that the popping of a bolt or crumpling of a bulkhead no thicker than a beer can could have shattered them forever.

We've known such moments before and since, and no doubt someday will again experience the crushing of a future generation's dreams under the boot heel of history. But some of us will never forget that one special day, when mankind took a giant leap, forever changing the way we look at our world, our universe and ourselves, and we were all able share in the sense of joy and wonder and hope embodied in that one small step. It was better than Star Trek, WAY better than Lost In Space, because it was real, and it was happening right in front of our eyes. And I was there.

And now, 35 years later, I'm hoping that I'll live long enough to experience another moment like it again.

Posted byCOMTE on 1:17 PM

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