Unless you were camped out on the moon, you likely know that today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Yes, it’s been a half-century since Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon back on July 20, 1969, when the Beatles were still together and Trudeau the First was Canada’s Prime Minister.
Surely the lunar landing was the single greatest achievement of the 20th century, if not all of human history, especially given the rudimentary technology of the day.
Ah, the moon, the glorious moon. That glowing white orb that has fascinated our species since we were cave dwellers. It helped us hunt when it was full; it filled us with fear when the it eclipsed the sun; it has inspired love songs and was blamed for lunacy and in pop culture was the catalyst for the advent of werewolves. For thousands of years, the moon captivated us by its very presence; yet the very idea of actually visiting this satellite would forever remain the bailiwick of science fiction novels. Until, that is, when July 20, 1969 came to pass.
Even though I was only seven years old at the time of the moon landing, I still clearly recall the feeling of optimism and excitement that accompanied this historic achievement and the moon-mania that led up to it.
NASA’s profound project was such a welcome counterweight to other events at the time. An extremely unpopular war was being waged in Vietnam, and 1969 was the zenith of the hippie generation as many youths chose to drop out, toke up, and purposefully forget to practice personal hygiene. But with the Soviets winning the space race given their Sputnik successes, President John F. Kennedy made a commitment in 1962 that the USA would beat the USSR to the moon.
At a speech given on September 2, 1962 at Rice University, President Kennedy stated:
“But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the Moon!”
Incredible, isn’t it folks, that once upon a time Democrats actually believed in this concept known as American exceptionalism as opposed to what so many Democrats champion today, namely, socialism, open borders, and the horror of white privilege. Talk about the effects of a full moon.
But back in the swinging ‘60s, the overachievers toiling for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were busily making intricate calculations to pull off what would emerge as the most grandiose odyssey in the history of human exploration. And yes, folks, it WAS rocket science.
On the night of the moon landing, like all our neighbours on our stretch of Lawrence Avenue West in Toronto, my family watched the event in the backyard. The lawnmower’s extension cord was plugged into our black-and-white 26-inch Viking television set, which had been temporarily relocated from the living room.
When I think back, l sometimes try to piece together exactly why we chose to view the lunar landing outdoors. Maybe it was all about escaping the oppressive heat of the house/ (nobody we knew had the now commonplace luxury that is air conditioning.) Or maybe, just maybe, we wanted to experience some sort of connection with the moon by gazing upon that bright ivory orb a quarter-million miles away… and hoping beyond hope that we might just observe a teeny-tiny speck descending to the lunar surface, a steel capsule containing precious cargo – namely, those three Earthlings far, far from home.
It was a time of wonder and awe, to be sure. And given the immense logistical challenges inherent to the space program – after all, there’s more computing power in a Toyota Prius than what the Apollo mission had at its disposal – is it any wonder that when the lunar-lander Eagle touched down upon the waterless Sea of Tranquility many of those stoic men of science at ground control in Houston wept? After all, when Armstrong’s big white boot made contact with the surface of the moon, it was the achievement of the millennium.
As well, when Armstrong made his instantly famous speech – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – it was an utterance of such profound beauty that I’m hard-pressed to think of another line in English literature that comes even close to the perfection achieved by those 11 words (even though Armstrong did mean to say “a man” as opposed to simply “man” which wouldn’t have made the statement redundant.) Still, thank God Team Trudeau had nothing to do with writing that speech. Call me a chauvinist, but I just don’t think “One small step for peoplekind” resonates to the same degree…
But let’s not nitpick here. And I must say of all the famous Americans I can think of, for me Neil Armstrong came across as the most ... Canadian. He was soft spoken, reserved, and self-effacing. If anyone had earned bragging rights, it was surely this man who was the first to prance upon a patch of real estate that wasn’t part of terra firma. But he shunned the spotlight. Said Armstrong in 2000 in one of his rare public appearances:
“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer. And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
Armstrong last went public in 2010 with his concerns about President Barack Obama’s space policy that shifted attention away from a return to the moon and emphasized private companies developing spaceships. Armstrong testified before Congress, saying he had “substantial reservations” regarding a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.”
Alas, whereas once upon a time NASA’s astronauts were the planet’s greatest and most courageous explorers, today cutbacks have essentially reduced them to cosmic hitchhikers.
Oh, but the memories of that magic summer of ’69 remain. Indeed, in the months leading up to the moon mission, I lived and breathed the space program. All my favourite toys were astronaut-themed, from Major Matt Mason to Billy Blastoff. And I drank copious quantities of Tang, knowing this was the beverage being consumed by Armstrong along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as they washed down their protein pills.
Most of all, I remember keeping a scrapbook. I carefully cut out every single newspaper and magazine story leading up to the lunar landing and pasted those stories into that book. Indeed, who can ever forget what is one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century taken by Buzz Aldrin of Armstrong in the Sea of Tranquility. Sure, Aldrin just missed out on being the first man on the moon by a few minutes, but because he was the one assigned to tote about that 70-mm Hasselblad camera, Aldrin would be the man to document the landing. And indeed, you can see Buzz the photographer reflected in the visor of Armstrong’s space helmet.
That glorious photo was the centrepiece of my makeshift scrapbook, a document that I kept carefully preserved for years. But much like the space program itself, my scrapbook was eventually forgotten and misplaced. To this day that scrapbook of Apollo 11 news clippings and photographs remains my Rosebud… that one item from my childhood I’d trade almost anything to have back.
On August 25, 2012, my childhood hero, Neil Armstrong, passed away. A few days later, he would be buried in his hometown of Cincinnati. It was a private affair. And in the department of cosmic coincidences, a rare blue moon was in Earth’s orbit that particular evening, a moon in which Armstrong’s footprints remain forever preserved upon the surface.
As for tonight, that great lustrous orb will be 89 per cent visible, making it almost a full moon. And should you choose to look up, waaay up, and gaze upon that gorgeous sphere, please raise a toast to NASA’s Apollo 11 team and especially that quiet and reserved engineer with the pocket protector and white socks… a man who showed a seven-year-old boy – and indeed an entire planet – that even impossible dreams can come true.