July 20, 1969

Apollo_11_lunar_moduleThe 60s were a tough time in terms of news that sticks with me.  Maybe it’s because I was young – I was born in 1959 – but mostly, what I remember are the low points when it seemed like my whole family, my neighbors, the world for all I knew,  had stopped and were gathered around the television.  I’ve experienced days like that since then, of course, most memorably 9/11 and when the Challenger space shuttle blew up in 1986, but by then we had grown somewhat used to the spectacle of continuous news coverage.  Back in the 60s, it was much rarer, but I remember:

  • The day Kennedy was shot in Dallas and the four days afterwards when the TV stayed on all the time.
  • Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he wouldn’t stand for re-election
  • The assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy.

But I also remember the night of July 20th, 1969 when I played outside until it was dark and my parents called me in to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the moon and – we found out much later – bungle his lines.  The picture was grainy, oversaturated black-and-white but for a kid who’d grown up on black-and-white and rabbit ears, it seemed pretty good to me.  The event itself was magical.

Like a lot of us back then, I thought that by now – 40 years later – we’d have permanent colonies on the Moon and maybe Mars.  The year before, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 had shown us a vision of Pan Am space planes, orbiting Hilton hotels and more.  It seemed very doable and natural, an extension of the settler impulse that had pushed us across a continent and out into space.

Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out quite the way we expected.  Space is a lot more inhospitable to Earth-evolved humans than we realized back then and it’s very, very, very expensive to put people and stuff into orbit (much less to the Moon or Mars and back).  The evolution of computing power and robotics means that it’s far safer and cheaper to send unmanned missions anywhere in the Solar system (and beyond) than it is to send fragile, bulky, needy humans.

But still…it seems like an awful big waste of space if we’re sentenced to this 3rd rock from a non-descript sun drifting in an out-of-the-way corner of a pretty unremarkable galaxy.  “Look but don’t touch,” doesn’t sit well with a kid raised on Tom Swift and Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein.

Maybe, though, there’s still hope.  In recent years, there’s been an expansion in the efforts of the private sector to get into space.  Several teams are competing to develop reliable launch vehicles that are orders of magnitude cheaper than the government-run alternatives.  This trend could accelerate if somebody figures out how to make money – preferably a lot of money – up there.  If that happens, who knows?  Some day, this old guy might just take a trip up there to see what its like.

Until then, though, let’s tip our hats to Messers. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins for what they accomplished and the hope they took with them.

“They came in peace for all mankind.”

- Austin

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