Moonstruck by the moon landing

By Dan Young

ESCANABA — On Sunday night, July 20, 1969, I was a 16-year- old teenager, lying on our living room floor, watching Jules Bergman on our small, 16-inch black and white TV, as he fiddled with a plastic model of a bug-like spacecraft. It had been about four hours since Neil Armstrong had piloted the spider-like Lunar Module “Eagle,” down to a last-second landing next to a small crater on the dusty and barren surface of the Sea of Tranquility. As they had touched-down alarms were sounding and the LM’s gas tank was reading a big, red E, for “empty.”

And then, as cool as a cucumber, the former test pilot had reported, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

Hours had then passed, mostly with replays of films of the lift-off at 9:32 a.m. on July 16, and clips of President Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University in 1961, where he challenged our nation to be the first to place men on the moon and return them safely, saying, “We choose to go to the moon, and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

There had been hard days. The crew of Apollo 1 had died in a horrific launch pad fire during a countdown rehearsal in 1967. Following that fire, there had been a year and a half of no flights as NASA re-designed, re-engineered and rebuilt the entire Command Module to be safer. All the while, we kept hearing rumors that the Russians were ahead of us; that they were building a giant rocket and were aiming it at the moon.

There had also been triumphs. While Apollo 8 orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the three-man crew, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders had taken turns reading the Creation Story from the Biblical Book of Genesis, “The Evening and the Morning…The First Day…And God saw that it was Good,” conveying in words and images the message that we are all passengers together on this fragile spaceship, Earth.

At the time, few knew that their historic orbits of the Moon came just days ahead of a failed attempt by the Russians to launch their giant N-1 rocket on a mission to land on the moon and claim it for the USSR.

Of all the days, hours and minutes in my life, there are only a handful when I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time something took place. One was the moment right after lunch on Nov. 23, 1963, when I was in fifth grade. Mr. Curry, the principal came into Mrs. Shannon’s classroom, whispered something in her ear, and then left. After a moment, she stood up, coughed a little and tried to speak. She seemed to lean on her a desk for support, and then she told us that President Kennedy had been shot, and that we would say the Pledge of Allegiance, and then be dismissed for the rest of the day.

The second is the minute that Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the Lunar Module, Eagle, paused on the last rung, his left foot dangling in space, and then hopped down onto the dusty surface of the moon.

Ever since I was 11 years old, when I got my first telescope for Christmas and my brother and I had carried it up onto the flat roof of the carport and pointed it at a bright “star” above the trees across the street, and I had peeked into the eyepiece and had discovered that the “star” was actually the ringed planet, Saturn, I had been hooked on astronomy and space.

In 1999, 30 years after Apollo 11’s triumph, historian Arthur Schlesinger noted that when President Kennedy set the goal in 1961 of landing men on the moon by the end of the decade, he was committing us to something we simply couldn’t do. We didn’t have the tools or equipment –the rockets or the spacesuits or the computers. We didn’t even know what course to take to get there, or whether we could get back. Doctors were worried that our brains might not work right in micro-gravity and the astronauts wouldn’t be able to think or function. At the time, there were no computers small enough to fit into the average living room, let alone a cramped, cone-shaped craft, not quite 13 feet wide at the base by 10.5 feet tall.

Everyone recalls Neil Armstrong’s iconic words as he stepped onto the lunar surface that night, but it is Edwin, “Buzz” Aldrin’s description that echoes in my head, uttered as he stepped down, looked around, and noted the blasted, pocked-marked, and cratered Moon’s “magnificent desolation.” On July 20th we mark the 50th Anniversary of the first human foray to another celestial body. Let us hope that it is not also the last.

— — —

Dan Young of Escanaba is a member of the Delta Astronomical Society.