Monday, July 20, 2009

The Eagle has landed

History from a front-row seat

July 20, 1969, was a Sunday. Therefore we went to 8:30 mass in our parish church. Our fire-and-brimstone monsignor was no longer pastor and our new parish priest had yet to hit his stride. While Monsignor could whip through a mass in 35 minutes, Father clocked in at about 50. (We were supposed to offer up our sufferings as penance.) I was fidgety through the whole ceremony and got a couple of nasty looks from Dad and a elbow-nudge or two from Mom. Finally the mass was ended and we could go in peace to love and serve the Lord—and to get the hell out of there.

It just so happens that our home and our parish church form a nearly perfect east-west line, several miles in length, but there is no through road there. We would normally travel north from home till we hit the major east-west thoroughfare (such as it was, given the standards of county roads), and then jog back to the south once in the neighborhood of the church. The north route was the better road and the faster route, but on July 20, 1969, Dad decided to return home along the south route.

Fear gripped my heart. Was he planning to drop in on his sister? Dad's brother-in-law had a dairy farm on that road. We could be stuck there for hours. Would the television be on? Probably, but I couldn't be certain. Our car headed south and made the turn onto Dad's chosen route. A man in a pickup truck waved at us and Dad pulled over. He clambered out, strolled over to the pickup, and engaged a fellow farmer in conversation.

I was practically vibrating in my seat. Mom turned around and gave me a look. My siblings simpered.

It was only a few minutes, but it seemed like eternity. Dad finally walked back, climbed into the car, and we were off again. The next danger point was my uncle and aunt's dairy farm, but we blew past it without slowing down. I didn't start breathing regularly, though, till we turned the corner of our street and home was directly ahead.

Under normal circumstances, the standard practice in our home was to ask a parent whether or not it was all right to turn on the TV. (Imagine that.) But it was July 20, 1969. I was in high school and history was unfolding. I rushed into the family room and turned on the television on my own authority. Sure enough, Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra were there to comfort me. I breathed a sigh of relief.

It was not yet 10:00 in the morning, Pacific Daylight Time. The moon landing was scheduled for approximately 1:00 that afternoon. We had plenty of time to spare. However, I grudged every minute of live news coverage that I had missed due to Father's slowpoke mass and Dad's leisurely return home. I wanted to be tuned in to Walter Cronkite as much as sports fanatics insist on watching every minute of Super Bowl pre-game programming.

At 1:17 PDT, I wasn't moving a muscle as Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the moon in the Eagle lunar module. “Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

I remember Cronkite's reaction, but I don't remember mine. My best guess is a slightly slack-jawed “Wowwwwww!” There was a babble from other family members, along with a yell from my kid brother. We were really on the moon!

That night, I scribbled some brief notes in the five-year diary I was keeping at the time. You have only a few lines to record the notable events of the day, and this is what I wrote:
Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin landed the “Eagle” in the Sea of Tranquility; moonwalk: 2 hours, 13 min.
I see from other sources that the first moonwalk was later logged as lasting 2 hours, 36 minutes, and 40 seconds. I don't know what accounts for the discrepancy. Perhaps I was tired. (Perhaps the official timekeepers decided to include the time that Armstrong and Aldrin spent on the lunar module's porch and ladder.) The diary also notes that I didn't get to bed till 1:45 in the morning. You're allowed to stay up late on Moon Day.

I did mention that it was a five-year diary in which I took note of the epochal Apollo 11 moon landing. Having dug up this ancient document, I could not resist perusing it for a while. I was amused, in particular, to see what I had been reading on previous 20ths of July. In 1965, I wrote that I was reading The Deep Range (one of Arthur C. Clarke's non-sf novels). In 1966 my reading material was “Sunjammer,” Clarke's much-admired short story of an inconclusive light-sail race. Perhaps I had run out of Clarke's books by 1967, when I read John Brunner's Secret Agent of Terra. Considering that Brunner also wrote Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider, I think we must concede that Secret Agent is one of his lesser works. In 1968, I was in the midst of Samuel R. Delany's Einstein Intersection.

And what was I reading during the time of the moon landing in 1969? I didn't mention anything specific on July 20, but later that week I made an entry that I was working through The Riddle of Gravitation by P. G. Bergmann. Just a bit of nonfiction for variety.

Funny thing, though. For all the reading I did—and I did a lot of it—not even one of the sf stories or novels about space exploration ever suggested that the first moon landing would be a live broadcast event. That's a curious failure of the imagination. In 1969, the revolution was televised.

I was (am!) a child of the Space Age. As a teenager during the Apollo program, I fully expected that it would be completely reasonable to book a lunar vacation for my fiftieth birthday, which would not occur until the 21st century. Silly me. I forgot to take into account that Richard Nixon was president and was eager to dismantle the program that had become a monument to the memory of his late rival, the man who defeated him for the presidency in 1960. Nixon had insisted on having his name included in the plaque that remained on the surface of the moon as part of the lunar module landing stage, but he had squeezed as much p.r. as he could out of the event and was ready to wash his hands of the whole thing. Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 were cut and only one actual scientist (Harrison Schmitt) made it to the moon before the program was cancelled.

And we still haven't gone back.

Well, I don't like to travel that much, but I do rather wish we were a truly spacefaring race by now. It's taking longer than I thought.

Perhaps I should not complain too much. I remember watching coverage of subsequent missions with my grandmother. She was bemused by the entire experience. Wilbur and Orville Wright had yet to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk when my grandmother was born in the Azores. She lived to see jumbo jets, moon landings, and the start of the space shuttle program. When she was a young girl, next year could be relied upon to be very similar to last year. You would probably end up doing what your mother or father did, and probably in the same place. Her expectations were quite contrary to the resulting reality, which transplanted her thousands of miles from home and presented her with a dizzying acceleration of history.

It was that dizzying acceleration that had become my default expectation when I was a youngster, but I still don't have my flying car, rocket belt, or lunar vacation. After the 0 to 60 pedal-to-the-metal spike of acceleration, I guess it's cruise time.


The Ridger, FCD said...

"And I imagine you back then, with snap-brim hat and farmer's tan where horses pulled their wagons through the fields... Now the fields are all four lanes, and the moon's not just a name. Are you more surprised by how things change, or how they stay the same?" (Cheryl Wheeler, 75 Septembers)

I want the George Jetson car that folds up into a briefcase light enough to actually carry.

Interrobang said...

I'm too young for the moon landing. I mostly remember space as a place where you die horribly trying to get there or back. Now that the US is no longer interested in space because they're trying to keep up with the Joneses, er, the Soviets, and like many of my generation, Cold War paranoia seems weird to us, we're mostly sort of like, "Why do we want to do this again? Um, shouldn't we be taking care of global warming, poverty, war, the subhuman status of women on most of the globe, and ten thousand other things here at home before we think about trying to export the madness into space?" 'Because it's there' just doesn't really cut it for a lot of us, I think. (And yes, I realise that none of these things are an either-or proposition, but I'd rather people were paying attention to problems here at home before getting distracted by space to do...what exactly? There's no earthly reason we need to continue the Cosmic Cock-Swinging Exercise, so why bother?)

I'm also against private space exploration largely on the grounds that it's likely to be even less safe than governmental space programs, and I think space exploration is too dangerous as it is anyway. So...very likely to kill you, no real benefit that hasn't already been derived, and, in the case of private space exploration, no real innovation (a couple of the X Prize teams were using WWII era rocket technology *headdesk*)...what for? Why even want to do this?

I'm 34, for what it's worth, and I still don't get it.

David Ratnasabapathy said...

"...I was reading The Deep Range (one of Arthur C. Clarke's non-sf novels)."

Surely The Deep Range is science fiction? The plot is built on a UN organization tasked with farming whales for milk and meat like we farm cattle. The protagonist is a grounded spaceman. And there's an antigravity spaceship at the end.

Zeno said...

David, you obviously remember The Deep Range better than I do. I had quite forgotten the sf elements and recalled only the sea farming, which seemed rather tame and almost contemporary.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I didn't realise that Nixon was that instrumental in ending the Apollo programme. I only recall hearing recently that there wasn't all that much opposition to doing it, exactly because it had been so succesful. Three more missions would have increased the risk of something going wrong - someone being killed - and that was very much unwanted publicity by then.

And Nixon *did* fund cancer research instead. It just turned out to be hella lot harder to do than go to the Moon.


The money spent on space research is a pittance compared to the current wars - or just the recent bailouts. But unlike either of those that is *research* and as such there's every reason to think that it will be for the good of mankind. Apollo was not the cause for devoloping microprocessors, but it was nonetheless the first major project to use them.

We need space as much as we need the LHC and every other sort of basic research. If we were never to aim further until everything that's wrong has been fixed, we would still be in the caves.

I'm thirty-two, and I politely suggest you put a sock in it.

Theo Bromine said...

I was fortunate to be in California on Moon Day (at the age of 10), so that I only had to stay up to 1 am instead of the 4 am it would have been back home in Toronto. What I find remarkable is how badly people over-estimated the projections of advances in transportation (where's my flying car?), and how badly we under-estimated the advances in computer and communication technology (handheld devices that can communicate across the world are commonplace, and each has many times more computing and storage capacity than existed in the entire world just 50 years ago).