Half a century later, there’s no separating astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first captivating steps beyond this Earth from the brutality that surrounded them.
A worsening disaster of a war in Vietnam. A nuclear-tipped Cold War with no thaw in sight. A country that had turned its guns on itself, with the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — the latter the brother of already-slain president JFK, whose legacy project of a human journey to the moon was upon us.
America then was every inch the dreadful paradox it is today. Riven and reeling with inequality, the Not-Even-Remotely United States was home nonetheless to a subset of talented souls able and willing to answer the challenge of the ages.
If you were born to the digital era, please bear with the rest of us who remember those eight soaring days of July 1969 — the can-do, will-do, wow-look-despite-everything-they-actually-did-it wonder of it all.
Writers fell over themselves to bring shape and context to the blinding science. Mike Royko of the Chicago Daily News watched the launch of Apollo 11 alongside the oldest eyes he could find — 94-year-old nursing-home resident George Parkinson, whose mother had grown up with Mary Todd Lincoln. “She always felt Abe didn’t treat Mary Todd as well as he should have,” Parkinson recounted.
“The year Parkinson was born — 1875 — Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House. Mark Twain was writing Tom Sawyer. General Custer would soon ride to his death at the Little Big Horn. There were 37 states in the Union. Alexander Graham Bell made a telephone,” wrote Royko.
Parkinson had spent his working years as a country preacher in Oklahoma Territory, riding a pony through a four-church circuit. A 10-mile trip ate up the whole day. Just beyond, “Billy the Kid was still shooting people, Jesse James was alive and in hiding.” And now here he was with Royko, “looking at a spaceship on a colour television set, in an air-conditioned room, sitting in a plastic chair.”
Not even 10 years before Apollo 11’s liftoff, the last of Canada’s steam locomotives were still puffing along our railroads. Morse code was still in use. Now one of our own engineers, Owen Maynard, was in charge of NASA’s all-important Lunar Module program, alongside a team of Canadian engineers who learned their chops on the ill-fated Avro Arrow.
Not everyone was impressed. The late Peter Gzowski, before his years with CBC Radio, penned a 1968 year-in-review for the Star that grappled with everything from political assassinations to starvation in Africa to the rise of President Richard Nixon and likely continuation of war. What did Gzowski make of that year’s late-entry for news attention — the dramatic ascent in December of Apollo 8, which travelled to and encircled the moon as a dry-run, without actual touchdown?
“Perhaps in a thousand years it will be what 1968 is remembered for. But for now, to me, it just looks like the world’s most expensive Christmas toy,” wrote Gzowski.
That wasn’t the judgment of those of us on the tail end of the Baby Boom. My classmates and I were 7 years old in the summer of 1969 – Boomers by definition, but altogether too young to know what that even meant. We were oblivious to the Woodstock festival our Hippie elders were about to spring upon the world. We were oblivious to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who just weeks before the moon landing holed up briefly in Toronto’s King Edward Hotel, extending an invitation to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau to join their bed-in for peace. Meh. What’s a Beatle?
Apollo was, to our seven-year-old eyes nothing less than the Greatest Thing Ever. Our centre of gravity, strange as it seems today, was Buffalo — source of three of the tiny handful of pre-cable TV stations available to southern Ontario kids, if you had a decent antenna or rabbit ears. We spent our early years glued to WKBW-TV’s Rocketship 7, where our heroic host Dave Thomas, Promo The Robot and Mr. Beeper planted dreams of the space age. By the time 1969 rolled around, cheesy as it sounds, we could pretty much taste the moon. We were ready.
It was new and shiny as a Centennial Dime and the world would never be the same. To grasp the moon, to our barely more than toddler minds, meant the unleashing of every other childhood fantasy. Will we or won’t we ride jet packs to school by the time we get to Grade Six? I think we will! And traffic-schmaffic, Ford and GM surely will be cranking out the flying cars by the time we graduate and begin our working lives.
That’s what Neil Armstrong’s “small step for man, giant leap for mankind” signaled to the children of Apollo. We were all-in.
The historic lunar walkabout did not disappoint. The tempering of our childhood imaginations came much later. And in looking back now with grownup eyes upon the breakthrough of July 20, 1969, and all that preceded it, the methodology and teamwork of the science-led mission is especially striking.
In the dry-run that previous December, when astronaut James Lovell and his crew flew around the moon, one of the key tests was the mid-space second ignition of the Saturn 5 rocket — the burn that increased their speed to 24,300 miles an hour hurtling toward the moon.
“Man, what a feeling,” Lovell told reporters upon his return. “You could tell it was really hauling the mail. I wondered if we’d ever get back, watching the world get smaller and smaller.”
Lovell didn’t become quite so famous as Armstrong. Luck of the draw. Yet he flew four times in space and is alone in having travelled twice to the moon, without once actually landing. Tom Hanks would go on to play Lovell in the account of doomstruck Apollo 13.
Our childhood brains were wrong about the flying cars — although next-generation drones may yet make the distinction moot. But we were in good company. One of the most amusing corrections ever published in the New York Times came the day before the moon landing, when the paper apologized for a 49-year-old insult to Prof. Robert H. Goddard. With Apollo 11 well on its way to the moon, the paper now accepted Goddard’s claim that a rocket could function in a vacuum, reversing its earlier judgment, published in January 1920, that Goddard “only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high school.”
Toronto’s TV retailers reported a surge in sales in the runup to the eight days of Apollo 11. Even Shopsy’s delicatessen jumped onto the moonwagon, advertising a scrumptious “Lunar Party Platter delivered to your home — FREE MOON COOKIES TOO.”
The actual telecast — “Live, from the Moon, it’s Human Beings!” — drew an unprecedented 650 million viewers globally. Most remained indoors, transfixed. But in public viewings the world over, many literally danced in the streets, overflowing with hope and wonder.
There was undoubtedly a splash of testosterone in the triumph: Think of the aforementioned Tom Hanks in Cast Away, where stranded and matchless on a desert island and after rubbing his hands raw, he finally conjures a blaze. And then proceeds, in his delight, to pound his chest and scream it to a heedless world — “I have made fiiiiiire!”
We had made moon. And perhaps take a moment to reflect upon how lucky we are to have made it prior to the arrival of Donald Trump and Twitter.
Richard Nixon, for his part, characterized the moon landing as the most significant event since Creation. And despite the Biblical reference, the president’s claim earned religious blowback, including an admonition from evangelist Billy Graham, who ticked off the birth of Christ, the death of Christ and the Resurrection as three greater moments.
In attempting to cut through the hyperbole, the Star’s lead editorial the following day framed its view under the headline, “Moon-walk: an achievement without adequate measure.”
“That remarkable first step and the exciting romp of the astronauts that followed was an incredible climax to an unreal evening,” the Star opined. “What warmed the spectacle at the supreme moment — what made it human and understandable — was how American it all was. Their delight in the fabulous knowhow, now bringing them to a fabled achievement, made the Americans more attractive as a people than they’ve been for much of a decade … What was best about it — and equally American — were the homely touches, the clothesline attachments used to take the moon rocks back to the lunar module, the simple taciturnity of the astronauts, their dignity and absence of phony grandeur. It is a grand achievement and we salute the moon men and the army of technicians behind them. They have written history in the planets.”
In the staggering cost of it all, one of the most interesting facets of the Apollo breakthrough was the Lunar Receiving Laboratory — an airtight facility in Houston, Texas, designed to protect Earth from so-called “back contamination.” Though science had determined the overwhelming probability of the moon being lifeless, the quarantine facility was created on the insistence of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The argument ran along ethical lines: if there was any chance, however infinitesimal, that the United States might unwittingly return with a superbug that would expose Earth’s biosphere to possible extinction, it must err on the side of caution. And it did.
That’s an intriguing concept, 50 years later, when viewed through the lens of climate science and the threat the facts now represent. But then, so too is the entire Apollo program — an initiative launched by a Democratic president and delivered, one assassination and two presidents later, by a Republican. A national project that endured and ultimately transcended the fraught — and frightening — temper of the times, getting where it intended to go ahead of schedule.
In 1969, a journey to the moon was optional. In 2019, the journey to decarbonize is too — but not without consequences that are, under present-day technology, irreversible.
I long ago gave up on the flying car. But I’m still willing to suspend disbelief and not give up entirely on Americans themselves, regardless of the current resident in the Oval Office. Here’s hoping that just as they did in in 1969, the Americans will surprise us yet again. Maybe, just maybe, Apollo was the dry run for something far bigger.
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites