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Monday, July 20, 2009

We Could Walk Forever Walking On The Moon

July 20, 1969 was a few months shy of my 9th birthday, but I still recall that day vividly; actually a greater part of that week, since the TV networks pre-empted whatever was on at the moment whenever a television transmission was beamed down from Columbia/Eagle. It's something I think a lot of people born in the modern era of total global media saturation don't fully comprehend: the Apollo 11 mission was the first truly world-wide media event, with literally one quarter of the four-odd billion human beings listening to or watching every detail of the journey as it occurred in real-time.

Here in the Pacific Northwest it's still light at 8:00 p.m. in July, when Armstrong crawled out through the Lunar Module hatch and onto the "porch" just prior to the beginning of the live TV transmission. I was laying on the floor of our living room, watching one of those gigantic old color console TV's; my dad sitting in his lounger behind me, and my step mom and younger brothers sort of wandering around, maybe paying attention, maybe not. My entire focus was on that TV screen, so any peripheral activity going on around me was pretty much blanked out.

The landing itself had occurred some seven hours earlier, around 1:00 p.m. local time, so this had literally been an all day event, what with the CM/LM separation, the pre-burn visual inspection, then the actual de-orbit burn and landing. The networks had essentially cancelled whatever regular programming had been scheduled for that day (a Sunday, as I recall). Most of this of course wasn't seen by the television audience, but the network commentators (or, if you wanted the "real coverage", just CBS's Walter Cronkite - R.I.P.) were backed up by teams of reporters staking out every facility in NASA's network, from Mission Control in Houston, to JPL in Pasadena, even the contractors if I recall correctly, and of course everyone had some sort of model, or graphic representation, or animation available to illustrate every maneuver and activity.

So, we're sitting there, glued to the tube, watching the pictures come in from mission control, and listening to the eerie, occasionally echo-ey audio, when suddenly this ghostly, grainy black-and-white image pops up with a crawler scrolling across the bottom saying "Live From The Surface Of The Moon". Frankly, it was pretty hard to make out at first, since the LM had intentionally come down facing into its own shadow. But then, in that darkness, there was movement, and after a moment or two you could just make out the image of a puffy figure climbing down the ladder attached to the LM's front leg; Armstrong making his way down slowly, testing his ability to move in the bulky 300 pound space suit in one-sixth earth gravity; hopping up and down from the bottom rung to the landing foot-pad (because, as it turns out, he'd landed so softly, even despite having only a few seconds of fuel left, the shock-absorbing landing legs hadn't depressed as far down as had been expected), all the while describing his actions as we're watching them, which helped clarify things a great deal since he really was hard to make out in the low-contrast image.

Then, suddenly he gets still, and you can hear the tension in his voice: "Okay, I'm going to step off the LM now", and there's a slight side-ways movement; "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." I've seen this footage literally scores of times since that day, and despite his intention of including that additional "a" before "man", I can say with full confidence that it wasn't there. No glitch in the transmission, no halting pause - he just forgot to say it, period. Don't let the revisionists tell you otherwise. It's not like he wasn't a bit preoccupied at the time.

And at that moment, I think the entire world must have let out a collective sigh of breath - I know I did. Because, as tension-filled as the landing itself had been, this was THE moment, what we'd all been waiting for since Kennedy's Rice University speech in 1962 when he made the challenge to "land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth" before the end of the decade. Like Columbus (or maybe Erikson, or some unknown Chinese sailor) setting foot in the new world, Amundson at the South Pole, Hillary on Everest's summit, it's that one step, that physical touching of the unexplored place that seems to matter most to us, and here we were watching the most important step to occur in our lifetime, perhaps in any lifetime, live in glorious black-and-white television.

Cronkite, removing his glasses and wiping obvious tears from his eyes, with a grin as wide as the moon itself is also a memory that sticks with me. Anyone who grew up in that era, in the States at any rate, recognized him as one of our most trusted authority figures. He was the one on the news every night, telling us about the world, about our own country, the daily body counts of U.S. soldiers killed, the protests and unrest, the triumphs and tragedies of mid-century America; and here he was, unapologetically shedding tears of joy and relief, expressing how most of us felt at that same moment TO us. So sad that he had to pass just a few days short of this momentous anniversary, of which he was such an integral spectator.

After that, the rest of the moon walk is a bit of a blur in my memory. Once Armstrong set up the second, tripod-mounted TV camera, things were a little easier to make out, since it was out of the LM's shadow and showing considerably more detail and contrast. There were images of Aldrin coming out of the LM, down the ladder and onto the surface; magnificent panorama shots of the desolate, yet surprisingly smooth lunar landscape; two marshmallow encased figures bouncing up-and-down on the lunar surface; the setting up of the U.S. flag; Nixon's telephone call to the astronauts (another now taken-for-granted notion, that one can just pick up a phone and call someone, not just anywhere on the earth, but on another planet as well!); the unveiling and reading of the plaque attached to the LM landing leg intoning a message of peace and unity, ironic for a mission originally conceived in an era of paranoia and military competitiveness.

And then two and a-half hours later, they were crawling back into the LM. The TV transmission ceased, there were a few final comments from the reporters, and it was all over. I remember my dad getting us ready for bed, but who could have slept after a day like that? I lay wide awake in bed for hours, while those grainy black-and-white images continued to replay in my head. staring at the Revell 1/96 scale Saturn V model that stood In the corner of the bedroom I shared with one of my younger brothers. My dad and I had built it together (well, he did most of the building!) a couple of months prior; at nearly 4 foot tall it was bigger than me, and it loomed there in the darkness like a protective totem. I imagined myself, as I had done numerous times before, occupying that tiny silver cone at the very top, racing through the inky black sky toward the dull grey orb that even now was visible in the darkness above, wondering what it must have been like to travel down to its surface. But, I didn't have to imagine - I'd seen it with my own eyes, watched two men from planet earth traverse its landscape as if I was there standing next to them as they shuffled and hopped their way into history.

Hard to believe it's now 40 years later. Even harder for me to imagine why we stopped going, just when we'd made those first few tentative steps out into the darkness. After a handful more missions - it all just ended. Sure, we had Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz (finally making friends - in space at least - with our Russian adversaries), but then another six years would pass before the first Shuttle mission - none of which has ever gone beyond 400 miles altitude above the earth's surface. All sorts of rationalizations have been put forth to explain the step-back: the public lost interest in the seemingly routine nature of the event (the near-catastrophic events of the Apollo 13 mission notwithstanding); politicians couldn't support the enormous costs, especially with a full-scale war raging half a world away; we'd reached the goal of beating the Soviets to the moon, so the race was effectively over. But, I'd seen the images of Von Braun and Bonestell, of Kubrick and Clarke; the moon was supposed to have been just the beginning, not the end. We were supposed to have giant space stations, and permanent lunar bases, and leviathan-sized ships traversing the dark solar sea to Mars - and beyond. By the first decade of the New Millennium going into outer space was supposed to have been as routine as taking a long plane flight; instead of a few hundred astronauts, there were supposed to have been thousands of us, perhaps tens of thousands, regularly leaving the surly bonds of earth and venturing out into the void. And yet, here it is nearly 2010, and we're only just now talking about going back to the moon, maybe, in another ten years or so.

I just hope to live long enough to see it happen again.

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Posted byCOMTE on 1:49 PM

0 Scurvy Dogs Have Gathered 'Round The Scuttle Butt

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