As you look up at the moon this weekend, stop and remember — if you’re in the same age bracket as I am — that unforgettable summer, July 20, 1969 ... 50 years ago this weekend ... when human beings from Planet Earth first set foot on an alien world.
Can you believe that it has been half a century?
I was looking through some boxes of old memorabilia a while back and came across stuff that I saved as a kid from the days of the Apollo missions. Those books, clippings and other souvenirs brought back a flood of really great memories!
I have told you all before that I love outer space. By the age of 12, I had checked out and read every book the local library had on the topic of the Final Frontier and the search for extraterrestrial life.
And yes, I’m an incurable Trekkie, too, having watched each episode of the original “Star Trek” series and all 10 of the movies that followed at least a dozen times!
I grew up a kid of the 60’s, when the Space Race was blazing forward at full throttle. I loved every minute of it. Still do. Can’t wait for us to return to the moon in 2024 (if things go as planned) and to Mars a few years after. Its high time America got back into space!
Anytime a space mission was going on back in those good ol’ days, I was glued to the old 12-inch black and white TV set my grandparents owned, and — in those days before cable and satellite — rubbed blisters on my hands twisting that ornery ol’ outside antenna this way and that trying desperately to find another channel when the only channel we could receive with any regularity was suddenly covered up by “snow” (interference) during the midst of a critical “launch” or other noteworthy space event.
In my box of memories, I found some old newspapers I saved from the winter of 1968 when the moon program shifted into full-speed-ahead mode with the Apollo 8 mission.
I turned 12 that year as astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968.
I will never forget the sight of the brilliant planet Earth rising above the cold, gray lunar landscape as the Apollo 8 astronauts sent back across a quarter-million miles of space their Christmas gift to mankind — stunning TV pictures while reading the first verses of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …”
I sat up until the wee hours that morning with Walter Cronkite and CBS News, not missing a second as the TV pictures revealed to my eager eyes an eerie and forbidding, yet beautiful and inviting, alien world, a world that, until that time, existed only in books.
The next morning, Santa Claus (or my mama, not yet sure which!) thrilled my soul by leaving under our tree for me a telescope and a five-foot tall model kit of the Apollo/Saturn rocket.
Also in that box of keepsakes were several books and magazines from the period leading up to that following summer of 1969.
In June of that year, I celebrated my 13th birthday with a day trip to the Marshall Space Flight Center in nearby Huntsville, Alabama, where I got to watch some real-live Apollo astronauts training on a Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) simulator.
I set my alarm clock for 3 a.m. on July 16 because I did not want to miss the liftoff of Apollo 11, carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins on their way to the moon.
Four days later I sat in front of that same ol’ black and white TV, and rubbed more blisters on my hands twisting that ornery antenna trying to find better reception, as CBS broadcast the historic moment that the LEM (“Eagle”) separated from Command Module (CM) “Columbia”, leaving behind in lunar orbit astronaut Collins while Armstrong and Aldrin began their descent to the moon’s surface.
Mine and millions of other eyes were glued to TV sets around the world in a sense of excitement, fear and concern for the astronauts. After all, what if the surface below was nothing but dust and the LEM got swallowed up in the eons of powdery soil that covered the floor of the dry, dead Sea of Tranquility? No one knew.
It was high drama, I tell you, as even ‘Uncle Walter’ and the “space experts” of the day expressed their own jittery nervousness as we watched in amazement the “Eagle’s” descent.
Those millions of eyes soon shed emotional tears as Armstrong’s staticky voice radioed back to Mission Control that simple one-sentence statement that set off cheers and celebrations around the globe:
“Houston ... Tranquility Base here ... the Eagle has landed.”
But even that momentous occasion paled a few hours later as Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to leave boot prints in the dusty surface of that strange, new world.
Fifty years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.
I continued to follow the space program through Skylab, the Space Shuttle and beyond, and every so often I still break out my telescope to take a longing look at the cratered surface of the moon .... and dream.
Over the years I have had the privilege of meeting several of the astronauts, and got to hold on my shoulder before her death at Huntsville, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center, including Fred Haise, one of the men who survived the near-disaster of Apollo 13, Alan Shepherd, Michael Collins (who piloted the Command Module orbiting the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface), and several others. I also got to meet and hold on my shoulder Miss Baker – one of the tiny spider monkeys that NASA sent into space as “guinea pigs” during the testing phase of the Mercury missions. Miss Baker lived out the remainder of her years at the Huntsville facility and is now buried at the entrance to the MSFC where a granite marker notes her accomplishments, and those of her mate, Mr. Abel.
In the late 80’s, as NASA was preparing to return to space after a two-year hiatus following the Challenger disaster, I was one of several newspaper editors invited to join the press corps in covering the liftoff of the redesigned shuttle from the Kennedy Space Center.
I was like a kid at Christmas, standing there getting to listen as the amplified “T-minus” voice of Mission Control counted down the seconds until that big white bird thundered into a clear blue Florida sky, again bringing tears to my own eyes and to those of seasoned newsmen like Walter Cronkite, who was there as a “guest anchor” to cover the event as he did so eloquently throughout the 60’s and 70’s.
A few years back, as I watched on TV the final shuttle flight lift off, I felt an incredible emptiness and sadness with the realization that the flight was the last of America’s manned space missions for many years to come.
Not too long ago, my family and I visited the Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Smithsonian Museum’s National Air and Space Museum in Virginia where that “last of its kind” shuttle is now on public display.
In my humble opinion, we should be returning to the moon and sending a manned mission to Mars, and the sooner the better. With the amazing privatization of space exploration that we have seen in recent years, it seems more and more likely that humanity will set foot on the Red Planet much sooner than we may think, maybe even without NASA’s involvement.
I just hope it is within my lifetime because I would love to see it happen.
These manned space missions involve tons of money, yes, but money well spent because the technological benefits that space exploration produces for domestic purposes far outweigh the invested cost.
Plus, one day, humanity, or some of it anyway, will have to make new homes on some of those far-away worlds that for now are just twinkling lights in the night sky.
For what its worth, I still look up at those stars on clear, muggy summer nights and remember what it felt like as a kid growing up during one of the most fascinating periods of American space exploration.
Have a great week, and don’t forget to look up at the moon on Saturday evening ... and remember.
Live long and prosper, y’all. (All of you Trekkies will get that!)