Monday, July 20, 2009

One Giant Leap

Forty years ago today, the Eagle landed. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two men to walk on the moon.

It's hard to remember now how big that day was. I remember the entire family gathered around the television, me lying on the floor in front of the set, watching a fuzzy, ghosted image of Neil Armstrong climbing down the leg of the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module, for you kids who don't remember) and giving his famous "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" quote, his voice clipped by the radio transmitter. Among her many family snapshots, my mother has a photo of the TV showing Armstrong descending, with the words "Live from the moon" emblazoned across the bottom of the screen.

Aldrin descended soon after. The impression I carry, all these years later, is that he seemed reluctant to step away from the leg of the LEM. He kept starting to step away, then grabbing hold again, like a kid in the deep end of the pool who's afraid to let go of the edge.

Which is not to slight Aldrin's bravery. All of the Apollo astronauts exhibited incredible courage just in climbing into the capsule to take the voyage. The entire thing was so dangerous, so beyond anything that men had attempted before, and yet, they made it look easy. Hell, the way Armstrong and Aldrin bounced around on the moon's dusty surface, they made it look fun.

All the sadder, then, that since the end of the Apollo program, we've never been back, let alone moved beyond. I understand that there are other, more practical, more humane things to spend the money on. Believe, being unemployed at the moment, I'm hyperaware of spending priorities and the need to address basics before luxuries.

If you've ever gone back to visit your former elementary school as an adult, I'm sure you've had the experience of feeling that everything seemed smaller on your return. That's the way it feels now to look back at the moon landing. Everything was bigger then.

Everything seems smaller now.

Footage of the landing can be found on YouTube.

ETA: I've always wondered what it was like to be Mike Collins, the third man on the Apollo 11 mission. He stayed in the Command Module, orbiting the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin went down to the surface. Imagine the incredible mix of pride and disappointment at being selected for the first manned landing on the moon, then being told you have to be the one to wait in the car, idling by the curb, while the other guys go party. Imagine the loneliness of being that designated driver.

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