Forty years ago today I sat in the back of my family’s 1967 VW Minibus parked alongside the Intracoastal Waterway a few miles north of the Kennedy Space Center. My dad had awakened us at zero-dark-thirty to make the hour trek from our home to Titusville, and we’d gotten here well before dawn to join hundreds of other cars parked at this makeshift viewing station.
It was hot and sticky, even at this early hour — normal for Florida in July. I was tired and really would rather have been somewhere else. My parents listened to a news broadcast on a static-y transistor radio, as did just about every other family around us.
I was only half paying attention. Hey, I was a bratty 13-year-old who was too cool to do things with his family. Suddenly, a ripple of excitement went through the throng. Then … an incredibly loud roar from somewhere beyond the trees. Every head swiveled toward the sound. In a few seconds we could see the Saturn V rocket with a bright-orange flame propelling it skyward, arcing out over the early-morning Atlantic. A few seconds later a gentle whooshing of air passed over us — the powerful rocket’s shockwave.
We watched, mesmerized. This was Apollo 11, the first attempt to land a man on the moon. Here, all these years later, it’s hard to imagine the excitement that ran through our country — ran through the entire world — at the thought of conquering the moon.
A few evenings later, my family gathered around the black-and-white TV in my parents’ bedroom, watching grainy images of a lunar module sitting on the moon. Nothing had happened for hours. We listened in on conversations between the astronauts waiting to step out onto the moon’s surface and mission control back on earth, a conversation full of technojargon, lots of “uhs and ahs,” always accompanied by the distinctive beep when the speaker unkeyed his radio.
Then a bulky human form stepped out and clumsily made his way down the module’s ladder. It was hard to tell what was going on because the image was very poor, lots of sharp blacks and whites with little contrast. One final hop at the bottom, and then came the famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Huh!? What did he say? It makes no sense! We now know that Neil Armstrong managed to flub what was probably the most rehearsed line in history. But let’s give him a break. Neil was one brave guy, as were all the astronauts. They rode what was basically a very large bomb into outer space and traveled thousands of miles from the tiny planet that sustains human life. Yes, scientists and engineers had worked out all the probabilities and determined it was relatively safe to be an astronaut, but nothing was guaranteed. Armstrong and his fellow astronauts, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin, were there because President John Kennedy had challenged us as a nation to do great things during a September 1962 speech at Rice University.
Why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? … We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do those other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Yes, there was some politics behind that speech. We were engaged in a space race with the Soviet Union, with bragging rights at stake. (We as a nation were mightily embarrassed when the Soviets beat us into space with Sputnik.) But there was also the sense of challenge behind Kennedy’s speech. We as a nation were meant for greater things.
How different things are now. We seemingly have become a nation of whiners. Our “challenge” is to benefit ourselves, not do great things. Yes, I exaggerate, but not by a lot. Can you imagine a president today challenging us to do something as hard as building a space program almost from scratch and landing a man on the moon — all within seven years? No, politics today seems nothing but me, me, me, gimme, gimme, gimme.
I’m reminded by this anniversary that it’s good to do things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. How about you?