As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 16, 2017. [Photo: NASA]
On July 20, 1969, the Boston Red Sox completed a weekend sweep of the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, but the Fenway faithful weren’t getting their hopes up. The Sox still trailed the powerhouse O’s by 11 games.
Besides, at least for the moment, another match-up had eclipsed baseball for the attention of most New Englanders, not to mention the rest of the world: The United States and the Soviet Union were in the ninth inning of their race to the moon, and the Americans were ready to close things out.
The Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon at 4:18 EDT that Sunday afternoon, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation eight years earlier to accomplish the feat before the end of the decade. To say that JFK’s bold vision had captured the imagination of Americans is an understatement. References to space suffused pop culture in the 1960s and would continue to do so for years to come.
In our kitchens, we munched on Space Food Sticks and sipped Tang, the orange powdered breakfast drink that John Glenn had once quaffed in orbit; on our televisions, we watched “Lost In Space,” “Star Trek,” and “The Jetsons”; and on the radio, Sinatra advised that a girl’s kiss could “fly me to the moon.”
One of the most captivating songs to emerge during the Space Race was David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which tells the story of fictional astronaut Major Tom. The single, released five days before the Apollo 11 launch, traded on the ever-present danger inherent in space exploration. What if something went wrong, as it had with Apollo 1 when a cockpit fire took the lives of the three crew members? Or what if a spacecraft were unable to return home, as is the case with Major Tom? He leaves us with a wistful lament from the heavens: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”
(Bowie’s hit was prescient: in April 1970, an oxygen tank explosion forced Apollo 13 to abort its lunar landing and raised the harrowing specter that the spacecraft and crew would be cast into orbital oblivion. Such a fate was averted, thanks to some improvised ingenuity by NASA.)
Earth was a tumultuous place in 1969 as protests against the Vietnam War raged in the United States, the Troubles escalated in Northern Ireland, and food blockades in the Biafran War caused widespread famine.
The moon landing provided a breathtaking, if fleeting, respite from worldly woes, as well as an unprecedented collective human event. More than half a billion people tuned in on television as the astronauts stepped onto the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong spoke for all nations and peoples when he said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin was more succinct, but equally poetic: “Magnificent desolation.”
Back on Earth, people marveled.
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov offered this in the New York Times the following day: “Treading the soil of the moon, palpating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendor of the event, feeling in the pit of one’s stomach the separation from terra … these form the most romantic sensation an explorer has ever known.”
On CBS, Walter Cronkite said, “The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us, because if we are not able to land at least we are able to follow.”
In the fall, my father gave my brothers and me a hardcover book commemorating the Apollo 11 mission. On the front flyleaf, he wrote: “Never forget the day man reached for the stars.”
But 48 years later, perhaps no statement is as poignant as the one inscribed on the stainless-steel plaque left behind by Armstrong and Aldrin: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
In today’s inflamed geopolitical climate, I am struck by the benevolence of those words and the unanimity, however idealistic, they expressed.