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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Magnificent Desolation

Except for a few enclaves of isolation and repression, most people on the planet are aware that our fellow humans have walked on the Moon. To date, only 12 individuals have set foot on that little piece of Swiss cheese in the sky.

Forty years ago on July 16, 1969 I remember being shuffled into the Middle School auditorium on a Wednesday morning along with other kids to watch the event on television. Through the electronic portal we could see the huge Saturn rocket and its Apollo 11 crew blast off from Kennedy Space Center - live. I was just 15 years old. Watching blastoffs was so much better than regular school work. It gave me a break from my teacher, Mr. Berrardi, who tended to make my life miserable for no good reason. He was a borderline psycho.

However, it wasn't until Sunday July 20th when the really exciting stuff happened. The cool-looking lunar module separated from the mother-ship orbiting around the Moon and slowly made its way down to the cratered lunar surface with two of the three astronauts from the mission. My parents had gotten my brothers and I up in the middle of the night to watch the event unfold on our little B&W TV in the kitchen. I recall that we stat in front of the tube in our underwear in the summer heat. It was four in the morning, and I don't think I had ever been awake at that ungodly hour before.

My brother Larry was listening carefully to all of the communications between the astronauts and the command center back in Houston. Whenever the TV news commentator, Walter Cronkite, would make a feeble attempt to translate the terse monotone technical dialogue into plain English, Larry would get agitated and blurt out, "why doesn't he shut up so that we can hear what's going on!" Without a doubt, we were all in awe. Nothing like this had ever occurred before in the history of the world, and there we were - as a family - to see it unfold for better or worse. Everyone was well aware of the historical significance the mission embodied and about the potentially grave risks involved. It was not Science Fiction. It involved real human lives.

The Lunar Module (or LM) landed without incident. People from around the world seemed to be following the story. Later we would learn that the astronauts had a hard time finding a landing spot, and had almost run out of fuel. The Lunar Module had just 25 seconds of fuel left (kind of like a commercial flight I once took on "US Scare").

Late on Monday evening July 21st the live televised moon walk began. The family huddled in front of our little TV again. The TV set had a decent picture for its 5" screen, but we fiddled with the rabbit ears continually in an attempt to improve the reception.

Then it was time for Neil Armstrong make his famous descent onto the Moon's surface. There had been much speculation about what he would utter as his first words on the dusty terrain. Of course great importance would be attributed to the first complete sentence spoken by a human on a celestrial body other than Earth. TV anchor Walter Cronkite indicated that Armstrong had been supplied with many ideas and suggestions by prominent people from around the globe - including (one would presume) from President Nixon. It would certainly land on the front page in bold type as the headline of the world's newspapers, and be interpreted and reinterpreted in the context of the Cold War, and in popular culture.

In the end Armstrong came up with something a little bland and apolitical. Although not terribly poetic, it does have a historical ring to it. Armstrong said, with the hesitation you might expect from a child in a school play: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Later, astronaut Dr. Buzz Aldrin joined him on the Moon's surface. Aldrin described his first view of the Moon as "Magnificent desolation."

I like Aldrin's phrase "Magnificent desolation." It's poetic and concisely describes that barren, dead world. It's odd that we had to invest so much research, time, and money to travel so far to learn that fact. Sure, we brought back some rocks, and I've seen them (even touched one) at the Smithsonian Institution. But the trip to the Moon was really about exploration for the sake of exploration. It was largely symbolic, although many benefits - such as the sugary orange drink Tang, Velcro, the handheld Dustbuster, microwave ovens, Teflon dish pans, an exciting movie about space staring Tom Hanks, and a dance step invented by Michael Jackson. All of this resulted, directly or indirectly, from NASA's massive space project begun by President Kennedy only eight years earlier.

Oddly enough, the long term societal benefits from the Moon landing may have resulted from this photo:

It is view of the Earth rising over the Moon's horizon as taken from by the Apollo 11 crew. This photo became iconic, and was soon available in wall size formats for average people to hang in their homes. It was a mainstay image of the time, and was used as the cover for the "Whole Earth Catalog" - the de facto owner's manual for operating the planet.

Humans had traveled to the moon to discover the Earth. Although we discovered that the moon is a dead planet, we noticed that the Earth is amazingly beautiful, but in peril. That turned out to be the great lesson of the Apollo missions.
Over time, as the number of humans who ventured into space increased, an interesting phenomenon known as the "overview effect" developed. Astronauts would arrive back on Earth with a sense of enlightenment about their home planet. After seeing for themselves the entire outline of the Earth standing alone in the vacuum of cosmos, they realized how small and precious the planet really is. It spurred a new awareness and a desire to maintain and sustain the ecological balance of the planet. The Moon was long dead, but the Earth was suddenly seen an oasis in space. It led to a change in our mindset, and R. Buckminster Fuller aptly coined the term "Spaceship Earth" to describe our mobile home.
A few years later I attended a public lecture at Scarsdale High School by the famed science writer Isaac Asimov in NY State. Asimov had written many landmark Sci-Fi stories, including the Foundation Series. During the Q&A he was asked about the historic Moon landing. He relied that he had written fiction about it for decades, and he had been very confident that the goal would be achieved someday. Walking on the Moon seemed inevitable to him, since "you could look up in the sky and see the damn thing." But he confessed that he did not anticipate one major detail. Speaking with his heavy NY accent, Dr. Asimov admitted that he did not foresee that nearly everyone on Earth would be watching the event on the Moon unfold live on television.
Here is a little YouTube clip from CBS about the Moon landing from the perspective of anchorman Walter Cronkite. It's a little corny, but if you were there it may jog your memory...

That's what happened forty years ago this week.