Some thoughts I wrote on the fortieth anniversary in 2009.
My grandmother was born in 1900 on a farm in rural Pennsylvania that had no electricity. She was 17 when the US entered World War 1 and she survived the influenza pandemic of 1918. She weathered the Depression, raised a family in Brooklyn between deliveries of coal for heat and ice for the ice box and standing on the ration lines of World War ll for sugar, meat, and shoes. She did not have a telephone until the early fifties, when her daughters insisted they be connected to the world.
On July 20, 1969, when she was 69 years old, she watched a man walk on the moon. She was of the generation who witnessed the most dramatic changes of daily life and humanity’s accomplishments.
I came from the reverse angle. I was a child in the summer of 1969. I don’t remember a lot, but what I do remember is proverbially seared into my brain. On July 20, I was in front of the TV all day (it was a Sunday). I watched hours and hours of the pre-event coverage while playing with my dolls, following bits and pieces of what they were talking about. I particularly remember the visuals of the fantastical Melies A Trip to the Moon.
They coverage did not play up all the things that could go wrong, but the specter of catastrophe and death hung over the day. How could it not? The idea of this mission was so bold, the technical aspects so complex and untried. What if it was hubris for humanity to walk on the moon? And we know what the gods do to correct hubris . . . . But the success was triumphant, regardless of what Tom Wolfe says.
The TV Event of the Century
At 8:00 p.m. I had to go to bed, just like any other night. But at 10:30 p.m., my father woke my brother and me up. It’s one of the kindest things he ever did for us, making sure that since we were on the planet, we would see this event to top all events live, not just in replay.
I was in a dead sleep when he came to wake me. I remember getting up, completely groggy, and being freezing. We got downstairs, and I was so cold my dad got a blanket to wrap me in. My mom had wine glasses filled with Tom Collins soda for us. The images on the little black and white tv were shadowy, but defined.
I don’t remember us talking much. but it didn’t matter. The family was together, waaay past my bedtime, joining the world in watching a man broadcasting images from the surface of the moon. It’s the kind of first-person experience for which there is no substitution.
I don't think I ever fully woke up. I probably stayed up until midnight and then went back to bed. But I cherish those moments of first witness like no other because it was a celebration of one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. Most other “where were you” moments are of death and destruction.
Fly Me to the Moon
Ever since Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, the Sun and the Moon have filled our thoughts and helped to inform our longings. When I see the moon rise in my living room window, I marvel at its mutability: sometimes appearing low and large in the sky, sometimes red and small.
Shelley wrote a winsome poem about the orb, so quietly powerful that it sets the tides and rules the cycles of women:
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
And Van Heusen and Burke wrote a lovely song “Moonlight Becomes You,” that Crosby owned.
“If I say I love you
I want you to know
It’s not just because there’s moonlight
Although, moonlight becomes you so.”
The issues surrounding NASA and the space program are serious ones. But on each anniversary, it’s enough to honor the vision, and accomplishment, of the first humans to visit the Sea of Tranquility.