Thursday, July 16, 2009

Man on the Moon

"If you believed they put a man on the moon..."

Somewhere, stashed away among the archives of my past, is the age-yellowed front page of the Louisville Courier Journal from July 20, 1969 featuring a color photo of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the surface of the moon. I had that front page taped to the wall of my bedroom for years, along with my posters of Joe Namath, Peter Fonda and Raquel Welch. The posters are long gone, but I've been hanging onto that front page for forty years. I remember thinking that one day it would be a valuable piece of history. And I guess I was right, but not in the way I had imagined.

When I was a kid, space exploration was pretty much the coolest thing in the world. And it had nothing to do with beating the Russians or conquering the universe. It was about dreams and adventure and excitement: "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Obviously TV shows like Star Trek and movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey played a big part in my fascination with space travel, but it was the reality rather than the fantasy that originally captured my attention. During one of our summer vacation trips to Florida, my family visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, then known as Cape Kennedy. We toured the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building where the Saturn V rockets were assembled, and stood beside the massive 'crawler' that transports the rocket to the launch pad. The sheer magnitude of these engineering marvels gave rise to the belief that, in this amazing modern world, almost anything was possible.

That belief was confirmed on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words, "One small step for man... one giant leap for mankind."

I had been following the mission with great interest, from the thrilling liftoff on July 16th, through the amazing 280,000 mile voyage from the earth to the moon. The night of the moon landing, my parents let me camp out on the floor in front of the TV with my blanket and pillow, to watch the incredible event. I must have fallen asleep a couple of times, but I do remember seeing Armstrong come down that ladder for the first time and kind of bounce down onto the dusty surface of the moon. It was like a dream come true. A man was actually walking on the moon! We had really done it.

The next day I couldn't wait to see the color pictures in the paper, even though I was still pretty bleary from my first all-nighter. I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off the front page to hang on my bedroom wall in a place of honor. Today the moon, tomorrow -- who knows? That was the beauty of it. We could accomplish anything. And we would.

Less than a year later, however, our confidence was shaken by the nearly disastrous accident that befell Apollo 13. Although, as Ron Howard's excellent retelling of that event in the movie Apollo 13 shows, our ingenuity, intelligence and perseverance ultimately prevailed. But it was, no doubt, an object lesson in how dangerous things really were "out there."

But we kept learning and kept trying and, pretty soon, we were driving cars and hitting golfballs on the moon.

At some point during this period, on a trip to Washington D.C., my family visited the National Air and Space Museum. We got to take peek inside one of the Apollo command modules and stroll around a mock-up of the Lunar Excursion Module, the wacky looking bug-like contraption wrapped in gold foil that ferried the astronauts to and from the surface of the moon. And, of course, we saw the moon rocks. The fact is, the moon rocks did look a lot like certain earth rocks. Not like any rocks we had in Kentucky, mind you, but maybe like they had in Hawaii or New Mexico. But they were moon rocks! From the MOON! It was pretty amazing.

Of course it did not take long for the naysayers to start claiming that we had never really gone to the moon -- that the whole thing was just a hoax, a conspiracy. I never understood why anyone would believe that the moon landing was a hoax. First of all, why would you go to such lengths to fake a moon landing just to say you beat the Russians, and then repeat it five times? And why would you fake a failed mission to the moon?

But it was the era of Vietnam and Watergate and people did not believe in anything anymore. Anything good was phony and anything bad was true. It became cool to think that everything was a joke. Going to the moon was a big waste of time and money. What the hell did we want to go there for anyway?

Now of course, the idea of going to the moon seems quaint. Something dreamed up by a bunch of nerdy guys with crew cuts and short-sleeved oxfords. How silly. We should use our technology to make better phones and video games and stop wasting time on lame science fiction.

Yesterday, however, I watched the spectacular launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour from Cape Canaveral and I must admit it was still pretty thrilling. And as it turns out, those nerdy guys from NASA never have given up on the dream. In fact, my cousin Randy is one of them. He's part of the team developing the next generation of manned spacecraft, called Orion. They are planning to go back to the moon in about ten years or so. And then maybe to Mars. And after that, who knows?

I guess my old, yellowed front page from July 20, 1969 is a valuable historical artifact. Maybe not to the rest of the world. But it still reminds me of the importance of having a dream and doing everything in your power to make that dream a reality.

Because the real 'final frontier' is the imagination.

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