Recalling remarkable era of the Apollo moon landing

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Friday, July 20, highlighted the 49th anniversary of the momentous mark of Neil Armstrong’s boot print on the surface of the Sea of Tranquility. Turn back the clock with me and permit yourself to recall the remarkable adventure of Apollo 11 and, in so doing, restore and revive a sense of both 1969 pride and purpose in summertime of 2018.

But, moreover, with this now rather large, yawning gap of time, can we more critically assess the “space race” and the ongoing legacy of Apollo in Aroostook skies. What cosmic connection to the lunar surface could possibly remain for the ordinary man, woman, and child abiding in the land of moose, ice, and black fly?

In July 1969, at age 13, I spent a most agreeable summertime in the woods of northern Wisconsin, completing my third season as a camper at Lake Nebagamon. I had, like millions of other Americans, increasingly become more engaged by NASA’s developing space missions and industry. We kids, like none before us, had become “televised,” carving out a sense of space culture by passively absorbing a constant stream of NASA news, updates, suspense, and entertainment from that small but utterly essential component and appliance in household living: the television. Daily newspapers added another layer of visual and printed awareness. All of us felt carried along by the sense of both wonder and pride of watching American pilots put their lives on the line penetrating the depths of the unknown.

The initial commitment toward the Moon required an act of faith and vision on the part of then President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Certainly, his request to Congress to aggressively pursue the lunar target appealed to an urgently communicated desire to outrace the Soviets to the surface of our nearest celestial body. In his superb essay examining “Space,” recently deceased Rutgers historian William L. O’Neil brilliantly exposes the complex motives underlying our thrust upward and skyward. Layer upon layer, O’Neil stitches together American patriotic ambitions (to forever forbid a “communist” moon); the lucrative profit afforded the “military-industrial complex” of industrial aerospace research; the homespun popular need for American “heroes” suited for the extraordinary transformation of American culture in the 1960s; the paradoxical backseat pure instrumental scientific research took vis-à-vis the cost cutting engineering realities and super-sized drama of human space flight; the utter mother lode of televised public relations and unending hokum and spectacular splash yielding unheard of dollars in bringing both the story and the commercial spin off product to the consumer.  

Apollo 11, with Neil, Buzz, and Mike aboard,  arrived upon the Sea of Tranquility in a spacecraft designed more to win the race to the Moon against the Soviets rather than to comfortably and safely and scientifically bring the boys there and back. It became, all said and done, an exercise of technology on the edge, with all the dangers that implies.  All the complicated and convoluted hardware reflected not sophistication and simplicity of design as much as the primitive state of our technology needed to “get her done” as quickly as possible. Moreover, as O’Neil sums it all up, the manned space program (including the Apollo lunar landing) chiefly served as “a monument to the vanity of public men and the avarice of contractors” and therefore the ultimately appropriate symbol of the 1960s. And yet … to the innocents of a new frontier, the space program, including Apollo, offered a stimulant to our best and cleanest imaginations, imagery, and scientific idealism.

Now, readers, let’s return to the reality of today. What on Earth, in the light of this complicated communication, should the first lunar landing mean to us Aroostook County folk? What message can we meaningfully distill amongst ourselves, as adults, as well as to our children? First and foremost, never forget this: we are Americans. And that honest-to-God fact must never fail to uplift us. Even if we cannot extract the triumph of the moon landing from the problematic events which made it possible (viz the V-2 Nazi scientist … turned American- rehabilitated rocket genius Werner Von Braun, the blossom and blood of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the promise of civil rights and the rage of civil wrongs, the kooky beloved Beatles and the crazed terrifying Charles Manson, the War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam, Cold War,  feminism and faith, Camelot and counter-culture, myth and machine, H bombs and miniskirts), we can still call ourselves and our land beautiful and our American experience wonderful. If we do honor to what Neil Armstrong called the “Spirit of Apollo” by eventually and legislatively declaring each July 20, “Moon Day”, let’s “teach our children well … and feed them on our dreams” as the songsters once harmonized. Even if we fail to fly the flag from that “crater land,” we can maintain our historical heritage. And never forget the next time you and your loved ones gaze at that oh-say-can-you see full moon, that a bit of you and I remain up there waiting for us to return for good and for the good.

Lawrence Berz, planetarium director of the Francis Malcolm Science Center in Easton and adjunct faculty member of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone encourages everyone to just look up and gaze skyward and spaceward this summer.

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