“We’re all a little older, the air’s a little colder,
Feels like forty lifetimes since we walked upon the moon.”
-OysterBand, “I Know It’s Mine”
If you aren’t old enough to remember the first moon landing, you probably have trouble understanding how much it meant – or much it can sometimes still means to those of us who were.
In 1969, life in the industrialized countries had brought more prosperity to more people than at any time in history. At the same time, there were crippling, disfiguring inequalities and wrongs like the Vietnam War to correct. Some people – the so-called “silent majority” – were in denial about the problems, while the rest of us alternated between an optimism that often spilled over into the naïve and a growing cynical conviction that nothing was going to change. It was a moody time, as exciting as it was scary for those us who were still children and starting to wonder what the world would be like when we were adults.
For me, these conflicted feelings extended to the space program. I had done a school project a few years before about space exploration, and I knew it was nothing like the great adventure that science fiction had been promising us for the past thirty years. It was, after all, popularly called The Space Race, and I knew it was an extension of the nationalism of the Cold War, a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in which each was determined to prove its ideology the best. I knew, too, that Wernher von Braun was an ex-Nazi, and that NASA was too full of the American militarism that was responsible for Vietnam. As for the astronauts, in public they were bland good soldiers that no amount of PR could ever make into heroes.
All the same, I couldn’t help following the gradual testing of the Apollo systems in the eighteen months before the actual landing. No matter how tarnished, my science fiction dreams were starting to come true. When the crew of Apollo 8, in orbit around the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968, began reciting Genesis, I had much the same reaction as I’d had at Disneyland – it was at once corny and deeply moving. The gesture captured my imagination despite my recent conclusion that I was an agnostic.
By the time of the actual moon landing, my excitement – and everyone else’s – was almost unbearable. Everywhere I went, people were carrying transistor radios, not listening to music, but to live coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, or at least to discussion of it. People were making lists of firsts that would be accomplished on the mission as though they were achievements unlocked in a video game: First man to land on the moon, first man to orbit the moon alone, and dozens of others, some of them remarkably silly, including first man to leave the moon. Talk shows went on about the possibility that the LEM (which everybody knew was short for “Lunar Excursion Module”) might find itself landing sinking into layers of dust, or what Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong might do if they needed suit repairs while walking on the moon, or what Michael Collins felt like, being more isolated than any other human had ever been. Nobody could get enough of the coverage.
Then the actual landing came, and none of the shortcomings of NASA or the woodenness of the astronauts, or Armstrong’s pedestrian first words from the moon could destroy the excitement. Not only were humans taking the fist step out into space, but everyone knew that anyone with a television set or radio was listening in, in a small way a part of the achievement. Suddenly, for all the social problems of the time, being a human being, and a citizen of an industrialized country didn’t seem something to be ashamed of at all. Despite all the efforts of the United States government to convince the world that the moonlanding was an American achievement, we knew it was a human achievement that highlighted the best that was in us.
For the next few days, the celebration continued. Newspapers got out the large typefaces to produce souvenir editions with front pages consisting of a single headline and a few pictures. Airlines offered souvenir vouchers, reserving seats on their first flights to the moon (I kept mine for years).
Somehow – I’m not sure how — by the time of the next moon mission, the excitement had died out, the usual social issues and divisions returned if they had ever really gone away. Yet despite the hype and jingoism surround the event, the days of the moonlanding still lingers in my memory as a significant event.
Like the ending of the World Wars, it was a defining moment that combined the fulfillment of anticipation with genuine achievement and the hope for a better future. Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was one of the first major events to receive massive television coverage – but, unlike the Kennedy assassination, it left people in awe rather than horrified disbelief. It was like nothing that has happened since, not even the Falkland War or the two Gulf Wars, and probably can never happen again, given our modern cynicism and knowledge of the media.
How much of it was hype, I couldn’t say. But somehow, the point is academic. For a moment, the moonlanding made those who watched it believe – and that it why so many can’t forget it. Despite its shortcomings, I only wish that we could have a moment like that again.