Lila remembers it, but was roundly unimpressed at the time.
In my memory, the first moon landing is inextricably linked to my mother’s death. She died suddenly on 13 July 1969, while we were living abroad in South America. Three days later, on 16 July, the astronauts launched. I think I was aware of it; even overseas, news coverage of the event was all but unavoidable. On 19 July, while the astronauts were entering orbit on the dark side of the moon, my brother and I were put on a plane – unaccompanied, at ages 6 and 8 – bound for Washington, DC. The following day, at our grandparents’ house – the last time we would ever see them, as it later turned out – the moon landing was covered live on TV. It was 20 July, 1969.
I recall my brother avidly watching the black-and-white video transmission with our grandparents. I was roundly unimpressed. My brother tried to enlighten me on the astronomical scale of just what was happening: “Lila, they’re walking on the moon!” “Yes, I know.” “The moon, the actual moon, up in the sky! That’s where they are right now!” “YES, I KNOW.” I knew where they were, I knew it was the same moon I could see in the sky, and I knew that the moon was tremendously far away; I just didn’t really care all that much. Perhaps this was because when you are only 6 years old, you have no sense of perspective; whatever is going on around you is normal, so far as you know. Or maybe I was still coming to terms with my mother’s absence. To this day, anytime I hear the song “Summer of ’69,” that’s the first thing that comes to mind.
Looking back on the moon landing today, with the understanding that comes from education and perspective, I am a lot more impressed than I was at age 6! It occurs to me that NASA’s Apollo program engineers achieved feats that are still unmatched 46 years later, and they did it using computing technology that could barely power an electronic toaster today.
With practically nothing in computing power, yet a requirement for determining launch windows, there was a LOT of thought involved, far more than simply waiting for a planetary alignment and sunny skies. We might think we’re smart today, but we forget the pure, raw brain power and teamwork that past generations could bring to bear (Eratosthenes is another favorite of mine… he correctly deduced the Earth’s circumference and the tilt of its axis, over 2,000 years ago).
Then you have the astronauts themselves, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins. These three guys basically climbed on top of an enormous Roman candle, knowing full well the disaster that had befallen the Apollo 1 crew. Then they flew to the moon and back using less navigational computing power than today’s run-of-the mill pocket calculator. As astronaut David Scott put it:
“If you have a basketball and a baseball 14 feet apart, where the baseball represents the moon and the basketball represents the Earth, and you take a piece of paper sideways, the thinness of the paper would be the corridor you have to hit when you come back.”
In today’s technological landscape – where gigabytes of data can fit on a card the size of a postage stamp, where we can hold previously undreamed-of computing power in the palms of our hands, where computer simulations can be endlessly tweaked and fine-tuned right on our desktops – I suspect that we’d be hard pressed to find a team capable of this kind of raw mental fortitude and pure, unadulterated courage. That’s the problem with tools: they make life easier. Easy is nice, but it doesn’t exactly encourage us to develop those strengths that the tool was designed for. Were today’s engineers faced with a sudden loss of all of their advanced tools and then handed the task of landing a man on the moon, I wonder if they might not toss up their hands and declare it near-impossible, or too dangerous to attempt.
So, 46 years later, I have finally come to appreciate – really appreciate – just what it took to “boldly go where no man has gone before” (Star Trek was also cancelled in the summer of 1969, after just three seasons). Happy Moon Landing Anniversary, NASA.