Forty-two years ago today, I sat in front of a small black and white Crosley television while my parents and two uncles watched the grainy images beamed over NBC from the Sea of Tranquility. I was only three, but it’s my earliest clear memory. (Which means I was at Woodstock, which was three weeks later, since I don’t remember it.) So my recollection begins the moment man set foot on another world for the first time. I don’t remember Buzz Aldrin coming out of the lunar module later. I only remember that fuzzy image of Armstrong coming down the ladder, talking with Houston about the surface outside, then uttering those famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Though I was a toddler too young to quite understand how two guys got all the way up on the moon, why I couldn’t see them when I looked outside, or why the lunar module didn’t look like the rocket we watched blast off a few days earlier, the first ever moon landing still made an impression.
It sparked a long obsession with science fiction. It sparked a lifetime interest in all things space. It pretty much defined my childhood.
It’s always bothered me that we didn’t press on. Then again, the 1970’s were a decade of cynicism that exceeded even this decade. A nation beleaguered by Watergate, a failed war in Asia, gas shortages, inflation, and a Cold War dragging on too long had no appetite to boldly go. Perhaps if the Cold War had thawed much sooner, we might have returned in the eighties. Instead, we got the space station, a magnificent engineering feat in its own right, but hardly inspiring to the general public.
It’s hard to get excited about the space program these days. The last space shuttle mission is history. Hubble is in its waning days. Astronauts now have to hitch rides with the Russians to get into orbit. The government wants to go to Mars and has made that a priority. And President Obama has thrown the mandate for manned space flight to private industry. Both are exciting in and of themselves, but the public is not going to forget the deficit and two wars until someone shows them something.
So until something appears that shows us how to look forward, we can still look back to that night 42 years ago and know what’s possible.