The Moon Drew Us Outward

LATE Saturday evening, July 19, 1969, my father and mother and I climbed into our Chevy wagon and drove away from our summer cottage in Avalon, New Jersey. We were heading for West Chester, Pennsylvania, where our ramshackle brick house dozed sleepily through the long humid summers we regularly sought to escape. My mother was convinced that July 20 would be a certified Great Event - the more so because it was her birthday - and in the grand tradition of the '60s, we could not fully celebrate without a TV. The cottage had no TV. Thus, as Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. ``Buzz'' Aldrin (we all called him ``Buzz,'' as if we knew him) prepared to separate the Apollo 11 Lunar Module from the Command Module 240 million miles from earth, my parents and I drove home through the rural darkness of south Jersey.

We had the TV on all afternoon the next day, listening to Walter Cronkite moderate the terse blow-by-blow from Houston. My brother stopped by; we brought out the cake, lighted the candles, sang a slightly distracted ``Happy Birthday'' to my mother. Then, about 4 p.m. we stopped talking.

Buzz Aldrin was speaking. ``Forward, forward, good,'' he was saying. He was less than 100 feet above the lunar surface. ``Forty feet. Picking up some dust....'' The picture was fuzzy, obscured, alien. On our blue-green carpet the Pennsylvania light fell in hazy streaks. The room was still. We were all standing. ``Drifting to the right.... Contact light. OK. Engine stop!'' The voice changed. It was Neil Armstrong. ``Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.''

I looked around the living room. Nothing was different. The sofa still wore its frayed slipcovers, the coffee table held the bowls of chips, the cans of soda, the birthday cake. But we were not the same people. Everything we had ever desired - my mother's wish to be an artist, my father's hope to escape his tedious job, my brother's urge to be a rock star, my wish to be free of school forever - everything important to us had shifted slightly, as in a 5.0 earthquake. When we talked again, without marveling platitudes - ``Amazing!'' ``Unbelievable!'' - we sounded as if we were the same, as if we were mere witnesses to a TV drama. But that was not true, and we all knew it.

In this way, I think, we shared something with the 500 million or so human beings worldwide who watched the moon landing as it happened. We were on the human equivalent of the continental divide: What happened after this was the watershed, the slow wash of a new cosmos across the mind. The continuum of tiny and enormous advances in mechanics and cosmological theory and observation and electromagnetic research and chemical engineering and jet propulsion and computer science all added up to one thing: Human beings had left home for the first time. This lovely and troubled planet was no longer the sum of our being. It was, as the sages had always known, a place to begin.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon at 10:56 p.m. on July 20, my mother sat in a kind of rapture. It was not a melodramatic response. She had been born when the Model A was the great technological achievement, carrying people with a puttering grace from home to work to home. Home for her was always a mixed blessing, at once beautiful and too confining. Now, she saw - we all saw - that home was an open door. It was the first step in a long journey, and, as with all travel, it did not lead back to the same old place. In later years my mother spoke of the sense of release, of liberation, she felt upon seeing Armstrong bouncing in the diminished gravity of the moon. It was a release many of us felt, a metaphor with the full backing of reality.

After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986, the public television program NOVA did a series of interviews with astronauts and NASA officials. Often the interview questions seemed unanswerable. Yet the answers came. When one astronaut was asked to summarize the purpose of the space program - a gargantuan task - he shrugged and said, ``It's about leaving.'' A silence hung around his words. That's all? It's about leaving? You bet it is.

Our whole lives are about leaving: If we're lucky, we find this out early on. We grow, we learn, we journey far from home, we come back to a place we do not remember, we go forth again. We think of ourselves as stable, sedentary creatures, bound by mortgages and debts and schools and children, but this is merely one metaphor for our lives.

Our lives are really about dreaming and doing. We make models of rocket ships, as I did with Mercury and Gemini and Apollo, and then we make them for real: We live them, honoring our deep longings in deeds.

We saw those deep longings mirrored back to us over a quarter of a million miles of darkness 20 years ago. Now, catching our breath, uncertain, we look to the stars for answers.

The stars hold no answers; they shine as confirmations of our own curiosity. They do not call to us, or lure us, or fill our ears with the music of the spheres. Nevertheless they are our next pilgrimage, drawing us outward as, in a smaller way, the moon landing drew my family back home 20 years ago to watch fuzzy images on an old TV. At home then, we were engrossed in an impossible voyage; yet it was not impossible. It was real. And the voyage, too, was a kind of home, a journey in which we found our own best possibilities come to life.

The sedentary world of the spirit ended on July 20, 1969. From then on, whatever setbacks occurred, home was a voyage. The way was - is - long in the way our hopes are long, as we shake ourselves from lethargy and follow them.

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