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The race to the moon at middle age: What it meant and what it means

Name the third astronaut to walk on the moon. • Absolutely no idea? That tells us all we need to know about the space race, which effectively ended 40 years ago tomorrow, when human beings, in the person of Neil Armstrong, first set foot on another celestial body. The grainy, ghosty TV image was seen live by more than half a billion people, the largest shared event in the world at that time. • Six weeks later, Star Trek, the original series, went off the air. Our love affair with space adventure had cooled. We had beaten the Russians, we had fulfilled an assassinated president's promise. And we were ready to move on. • But we were no longer the same. It wasn't going to the moon that changed us — it was the view. • Seeing our own frail Earth from outer space, we intuited that it needed our attention. We began to look inward, not outward.

Some lovers of space never understood. They assumed that because we could do things in space, we would do things in space. As the first moon landing approached, people anticipated permanent lunar bases in the 1970s and manned missions to Mars not long after. They made the common mistake of projecting the present onto the future, as if history were a simple, uninterrupted linear progression. So they might be surprised that we're not flying around on individual jet packs in 2009. But they would equally be amazed by the Internet and the iPhone.

Living in our high-definition digital TV world of 2009, we should not make that same error in looking back. We should keep a 1969 sense of wonder about what it meant to land on the moon and not snicker at the primitive gray inkblot images that leave us debating whether that gray fuzz is Neil Armstrong's helmet or maybe his boots.

The glory and the irony of the first moon shot was that it mattered, but for many unanticipated reasons.

In the beginning, the space race was a competition between the Soviets and the Americans. But when astronauts slipped Earth's gravitational field for the first time, they saw the whole planet as a vulnerable little globe in a black void. From outer space, they could hold up a thumb and hide the one place we all share. Their world view changed. Literally.

The physics problem of getting to the moon was solved. Unanswered was the metaphysical question of what it meant to have left the Earth's orbit — and to have seen home as an outsider. The astronauts of Apollo 8, who circled the moon at Christmas in 1968, were the first to perceive this. The nascent environmental movement found a powerful image in Apollo 8's photo of the Earth rise. The first Earth Day was not far in the future.

In July 1969 came the moon landing and more revelations. Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the Sea of Tranquility, was the most isolated man in the universe, though he reveled in the solitude.

While hundreds of millions watched his fellow astronauts walk on the moon, Collins was orbiting 60 nautical miles above them, his view restricted to what little he could see out the small windows of his command module. He had no way to witness what the rest of us could watch in our living rooms. He had to rely on Houston to hear what was going on right below him. When he rounded the dark side of the moon, he was out of contact with all human life.

The astronauts who went to the moon came back changed men.

They had seen the Earth — and its billions of people, their perils and their promise — as a small blue marble. And those of us back on Earth could hardly fathom what had happened. We could look up at the moon and know — though it was almost impossible to believe — that humans were actually walking on the surface of that shiny object up in the sky.

Yet once we got there, we didn't care so much about going back. To the later Apollo moon flights, we added a lunar rover and televised coverage of the liftoff from the moon in living color, but none of it was enough. Getting there had been the whole point.

The Apollo program showed what we could do when we set a goal. Adults asked themselves: If we can go the moon, why can't we cure cancer? If we can go the moon, why can't we end poverty?

We don't frame the question that way anymore, because we haven't gone to the moon in more than a generation.

Besides, in our Great Recession, we're more clear-eyed about a world of limits. How do we reform health care? How do we keep Social Security solvent? How do we keep people in their jobs? How do we fix the economy and the banks and the car makers?

Those are questions about the quality of life, not the meaning of life.

Much the same thing has occurred in space travel. What happened in space became more routine — and more important. Going back the moon wasn't so relevant, but putting into orbit those satellites that help us to forecast the weather, to communicate around the world and to use our GPS systems, now those things matter. Yet we don't give them a second thought. They are just part of the background of our everyday existence, a life much better than the one we had 40 years ago.

Still, we can feel lost in space. The shuttle program that came after Apollo — and which itself is about to end — was billed as a space truck. A truck! Not the sexiest sales job for the mystery of discovery.

But as I look back to July 20, 1969, I remember what it was to be a 10-year-old waiting for Neil Armstrong to pilot the lunar module to a perfect landing with his fuel almost out. I had practiced his job in my parents' farm yard, upending a red metal lawn chair so I could lie on my back and face the stars as a proper astronaut would, a jar of Tang — the drink of astronauts! — by my side.

I was too young to understand Vietnam or the protests in the streets or the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Robert F. Kennedy. But I grasped the meaning of landing on the moon with the clarity and simplicity of a 10-year-old's uncluttered world view.

Now, 40 years later, the certitudes of black and white are shaded with more gray every year. I'm glad we went to the moon, but I understand perfectly well how a 10-year-old today cannot possibly fathom why we cared so much. And then why suddenly, we didn't.

Those youngsters will have to find something all their own to fire their imaginations, to make them look beyond today's world to a better one that they can help to shape.

And in their journey, they will surely find what they didn't expect.

It's a waning moon tonight, so if you look up in the sky you'll see only a sliver, a mere crescent. But if you are or ever were 10 years old, take that opportunity to peer heavenward and see those objects that would normally be obscured by a full moon's bright light.

Wish upon one of those unsung stars. Think about Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon, and wonder how he hoped to make his own mark on a place that was no longer terra incognita to humankind.

Imagine being in his boots back then, looking up at the small Earth, the only place we all still call home. There are nearly 7 billion of us now. What would you, what should you think?

Jim Verhulst can be reached at [email protected]

The race to the moon at middle age: What it meant and what it means 07/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 9:59am]
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