“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
“Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again, thanks a lot.”
Half a billion people watching down below turned blue, too. I know I did. Maybe that gangly mechanical spider they were driving would nestle gently into the lunar soil, soft as a baby’s breath. Maybe it would suddenly sink, swallowed by the green cheese that mysterious orb was made of after all.
Who knew anything? Humankind hadn’t before attempted this trick that was, by any rational measure, spectacularly suicidal. And yet: The Eagle had landed.
Channeling the man who was president of the United States on Sunday, July 20, 1969, let me make this perfectly clear—particularly to hoax-obsessed wing nuts who to this day insist it was filmed by Stanley Kubrick on a paltry budget with bad studio lighting:
It happened. I saw it. In real time. That being said: I can’t believe it happened. And that I saw it. In real time.
You know what I mean: that lunar-groundbreaking day 45 years ago this week, when Apollo 11 irrevocably severed our umbilical cord with Mother Earth by depositing humans on another heavenly surface. When President Richard Nixon rang up Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on a giant space rock, placing the longest-distance call—238,900 miles, give or take a few on the cosmic odometer—in Ma Bell history. (With better reception than our cellphones get now. Nixon never once said, “Can you hear me now?”)
Space mania seemed preordained for me from infancy, when my grandmother nicknamed me “Sputnik,” after the first artificial Earth satellite, launched by the Soviets in October 1957, five months after I was born. (That left me on the wrong side of the space race, but Grandma was an Eastern European immigrant, and America hadn’t done squat yet, so looking back, I cut her slack.)
Twelve years later, in front of our prehistoric TV, I watched a Space Age miracle, gaping—through radio beeps and static, through flat-voiced transmissions between Houston Control and the Eagle, through the foreboding cratered landscape that rolled by during descent—as a once unfathomable destination became Tranquility Base.
On CBS, a nearly childlike Walter Cronkite spoke for America—I recall it as something like, “Oh, boy,” “Wow” and “Gee,” as he raised his eyebrows in amazement. Announcing the late-afternoon landing, the Yankee Stadium scoreboard—to this New York kid, even more authoritative than Walter—flashed: “THEY’RE ON THE MOON.”
Astounding words, followed by more than six hours of interminable waiting. Finally, Armstrong hopped off that last ladder rung and onto the fine lunar powder, spoke of small steps and giant leaps, and, followed by Aldrin, walked on a ghostly world in grainy images of what Aldrin dubbed “magnificent desolation.” Fear nagged at me when it appeared they could tumble off the perilously close horizon, disappearing into black nothingness. (Later I learned that because the moon is much smaller than Earth, horizons seem closer to the human eye.)
Bolting toward our living room window, I looked up and squinted, as if that would sharpen my view of two moon men in balloon suits, bouncing around like marshmallows with legs.
Today, I still gaze skyward at night, with undimmed awe and gratitude that I was alive for a moment in history that stands with the feats of Magellan, Columbus and Lindbergh. As a reminder, a replica of the plaque left by Apollo 11— “We Came In Peace For All Mankind”—hangs in my home.
How fortunate I was to grow up amid the swagger and romanticism of the Apollo age, when ambition was written in poetry, not prose. Sadly, that era has thus far been a one-off. Valuable though the shuttle program was, I can’t help pitying the generation that saw the challenge of the heavens only from its Earth-orbital lens.
Apollo’s enormous Saturn V rocket was a chariot. The shuttle was a truck. Apollo astronauts were adventurers on a quest. Shuttle astronauts were space mechanics with to-do lists. Apollo voyages splashed down in the vast ocean, a cinematic finale for a journey to another world. Shuttle flights jogged around the neighborhood and landed on terra firma, as if taxiing in at McCarran.
Even the names speak of a generation gap between spacecraft: “Apollo” is a Greek god. “Shuttle” is that bus that runs you from the airport to the rental-car joint.
For manned missions, the shuttle was all we could afford, and all we should attempt, we told ourselves. Cosmic small ball. Will we ever play long ball again?
After witnessing the televised moonwalk in the movie Apollo 13, anticipating his own (unfortunately thwarted) turn, Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell looks toward the gray-white rock in the sky, with Armstrong and Aldrin and an American flag on it.
“It’s not a miracle,” he says. “We just decided to go.”
Split the difference: This was a man-made miracle, affirming what a miracle our species is when we rely on our human gifts.
Let’s go again. Then go farther. Easy to say, but I, for one, need it.
Cynicism slowly, perhaps inevitably, crept into me over the years. Life’s knocks will do that. I crave one more moment of pure, heart-swelling wonderment to resurrect the ideal that the thoroughly impossible is still thrillingly possible.
I need another Apollo 11 to give me back my 12-year-old soul.