The greatest generation has Pearl Harbor and VE-Day. Baby boomers have the Beatles’ first appearance on “Ed Sullivan” and Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon.
Ask anyone who was alive and sentient in July 1969, and they’ll tell you where they were when they saw it – and pretty much everyone did. I, a young outer-space nerd, was aware for the first time that history was happening right in front of me. I struggled to find words for the moment, but all I managed in my journal was to note the room in our house where I watched it, and a careful description of what I was wearing. So much for big thoughts. But at least I know for certain that I embraced that epic event in a navy-blue polo shirt and wheat-colored jeans.
In this week’s cover story, Monitor reporter Eva Botkin-Kowacki – to whose generation the moon program seems mythic – adds context, insight, and detail to that momentous mission and those politically fraught times. Many have noted that, without the impetus of the Cold War, America would never have gone to the moon. But did you know that it was Apollo 17 geologist-astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt’s unique way of getting around on the lunar surface that may have led to his making a big discovery? Eva heard the story from Dr. Schmitt himself – the 12th human to walk on the moon, if you’re counting. Fellow outer-space geeks will also be delighted to hear from Charles Duke Jr., the CAPCOM (capsule communicator) at Houston’s Mission Control for the Apollo 11 flight. His voice, and that of CBS’s Walter Cronkite, are the ones most fixed in my memory, along with the garbled – or was it flubbed? – line from Mr. Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (“What’d he say?” Mr. Cronkite asked an on-air colleague. It took a while, as I recall, for anyone to mention – or perhaps to notice – the charming redundancy.)
Humans had done the impossible. But once the lunar frontier had been opened, America soon turned its back on it. Sending humans into space was massively expensive, domestic needs and the war in Vietnam called for attention, and the propaganda value of lunar landings had faded. It would take years to rebuild the momentum for manned spaceflight.
Meanwhile, NASA began doing more with much less. Voyagers 1 and 2 and the New Horizons probes visited the outer planets and Pluto. Rovers and orbiters are still active on and around Mars. NASA discovered ice volcanoes, landscapes once shaped by running water, ice-coated moons enclosing vast seas – even a poignant, giant heart shape on Pluto. Here on Earth, finding life thriving under extreme conditions has raised hopes of finding life “out there,” too.
Late last month, NASA announced plans to send a car-sized quadcopter to one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, a top target in the search for extraterrestrial life. And if the space agency broadcasts the landing of that probe, or livestreams the onboard results of tests for life, this grown-up outer-space nerd will be watching, a witness to history. Maybe I’ll jot down what I’m wearing.