A warm day in July, 1969. I should be outside playing, but I’m in the house where the shades are drawn against the summer sun. The air is still and a bit stuffy. I’m drowsy, stretched out on the floor while reporters on the black and white TV are talking. I’ve been waiting for this day because history is being made—men are landing on the moon! I’ve followed all the NASA missions leading up to this one. A child of the Space Age, I watch rocket launches on TV while waiting for the school bus. On the playground, we repeat what we’ve heard: “ Five, four, three, two, one…ignition! We have lift-off!” Which is the signal to take off running, as if we can achieve our own liftoff.
Born in 1960, I never knew a world before space exploration. It was part of my growing up; a bright spot in the midst of a Cold War that I barely understood. The events of the day were far away, but transmitted on the nightly news—body counts from Vietnam Nam, footage of helicopters in jungles; war in the Middle East; riots in southern towns where police turned fire hoses and tear gas onto crowds; protesters on campuses; assassinations of political leaders; pollution and damaged ecosystems. There was plenty of bad news and scary stuff, but also a sense that the world was changing. The space program was a good—what we learned from going to the moon could make things better here on earth. There was a sense of optimism.
My first piggy bank was not a pig, but a plastic replica of a space capsule. I could slide my pennies through a slot in the top, and they made a satisfying rattle when I shook the bank. I knew the names of the astronauts, and read about space in the National Geographic (OK, I looked at the pictures and read the captions). As the Apollo 11 mission approached, I acquired a kit to build a model of the lunar lander. Because of the space program, I had decided that I wanted to be a scientist, probably a biologist. And I wanted to witness the moon landing as it happened.
The television coverage was incredibly boring. There was a lot of waiting. A lot of idle talk among the reporters. The astronauts were in orbit around the moon, and there was a tense radio silence when they were on the far side. I recently listened to a series of BBC podcasts narrated by Kevin Fong called “13 Minutes to the Moon” which brought the sounds and memories back across the decades. When radio contact was re-established, I felt the same elation that I had as a kid. I was touched to hear Michael Collins speak about the time he stayed in orbit while his colleagues went to the surface. That hot afternoon in 1969, I heard the words “The Eagle has landed.” I heard the cheering in Houston. They did it! I was thrilled. There was a lot more waiting before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would come out of the lunar module to walk around. In fact, my parents refused to let me stay up to watch. So what if it was two o’clock in the morning, I argued. This was a historic moment and I wanted to witness it. They did not relent. I would just have to watch the next day when it was replayed. It’s possible I still haven’t completely forgiven them. I did watch the next day, knowing that the big moment had passed. I was relieved and amazed when the astronauts made it home. What an awesome achievement!
I never doubted that Americans would be the first on the moon. The Russians were not that far behind, but it seemed to me then that we were determined, willing and able. I trusted good old American know-how and courage. Little did I know about the risks, leaps of faith, and enormous expense. Other than the space program, I never believed in American exceptionalism. What I saw on TV of the war and riots and protests, and what I would later see of Watergate and the energy crisis made me skeptical when politicians used the phrase “greatest nation on earth.” The greates nation on earth would not make so many blunders. Somehow the moon landing transcended politics.
As an adult looking back, I know that the Apollo missions shaped my outlook on the world. I assumed that we would keep making progress in many ways, from scientific benefits to humanity to a more egalitarian society that uses its resources wisely and fairly. I have been disappointed time and again. The first Earth Day came in 1970, less than a year after the moon landing and the image of our blue-green planet hanging in the dark vastness of space became the emblem of a new environmental consciousness. That image still haunts me. I will never see Earth from that vantage point myself, but it is how I picture our world. Small, fragile, indescribably beautiful. Home.
That sense of home and fragility made me an activist before I became a teenager. I wrote to corporations asking them what they were doing to leave a healthier planet for kids like me. I got some condescending letters and shiny brochures in return, but they didn’t address my concerns. I wrote a play about the dangers of pollution and pesticides which my fifth grade class produced. Adolescence then distracted my classmates and my family went through some difficult times. The natural world became a refuge and solace. I studied and read, integrating natural sciences with my inclination toward the arts. All that put me on the path I’ve been on for these many years.
I have more to say about that haunting image of Earth in space, the sense of home and preciousness. There is much in the news about climate change, climate grief, and the unknown that lies in store for humanity. I am glad to see protests again, and glad to hear young people are speaking out. I would have been one of them, but I was thirty years too early. I will find a way to join my voice to theirs.
But today is for remembering a time fifty years ago, when three men went on an incredible adventure and the eyes of the world were on them. Everyone wished them well, hoped for their success and safe return. What would it be like if we could ever be that focused together again? I wonder about that giant leap for all mankind—where would we find ourselves?