These were the days of miracle and wonder (Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012)

Yesterday was one of those days where I could proudly tell two later generations, “I remember when I was your age.”

It was one of those days where I could say it sadly as well. And not because the subject of this post has transcended space one last time.

Neil Armstrong’s death has evoked strong response from those of my generation and older, but I’m guessing there’s much raging indifference from the generations before who weren’t alive to see him walk on the moon in 1969.

It’s hard to imagine — in an era where the only technological event that makes anyone go gaga is anytime Apple unveils an overpriced, overhyped new toy to render the overpriced, overhyped new toy of a year ago obsolete — that there was a time when space launches and lunar landings were big news. And Apollo 11’s Eagle landed on a summer Sunday, but in general, balky, snowy TVs were wheeled into school cafeterias and auditoriums for kids to see space missions.

The recent landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars, as seen over the Web, did bring back some of that feeling. (Only with blue shirts, a multicultural crew, both sexes and and a Mohawk at JPL, rather than the roomful of white guys with white shirts and black ties and pocket protectors at Mission Control in Houston 43 years ago.) It was a parallel, but with somewhat less emotion.

When Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the Eagle late that night of July 20, and ever so slightly botched the words he had prepared for the occasion — “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” — he truly had the world watching.

The first lunar landing was the culmination of a decade of technological frenzy — a race mandated by a slain hero (and JFK was still idolized at the time) with a goal of decade’s end; a race exacerbated by a surrogate arms race with this country’s most feared rival; a race that brought scads of new inventions, as well as death and near-death and, eventually glory. And the unending fascination of the public.

Yes, nodding to Paul Simon, these truly were the days of miracle and wonder.

*****

All three networks threw incredible (even more so in this beancounter-ravaged era) amounts of money and programming time into covering the space race. Walter Cronkite took the lead for CBS; Frank Reynolds and Jules Bergman handled the coverage for ABC. In our house, it was mostly NBC and its much larger crew: Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, John Chancellor, Edwin Newman and Frank McGee. No slouches on any of the networks, and the coverage was totally explanatory — all the more important because the technology, both on the parts of the networks and NASA, was so less advanced than now.

All the space flights, from Mercury through Apollo and Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz docking, were treated as priorities, and networks thought nothing of pre-empting soap operas when necessary (which was fine by this youngster). They brought the space race into our living rooms, and we sat in rapt attention through the snow on our sets to devour every last morsel. And that included this young boy, who became skilled in drawing Apollo rockets with both the Saturn 1B booster rocket and the booster that got the astronauts to the moon, the Saturn V. (Yes, kids, Saturn V was once more than the name of a fictitious band in That Thing You Do …)

The technology and the human brainpower needed to accomplish a lunar landing — in the days when air-conditioned rooms full of giant computers were needed to do the workload of a modern smartphone — were boggling, far beyond our realm of understanding. The film Apollo 13 gave future generations more than an idea of the frenzy and the constant calculations and recalculations — and, especially in that case, determination and ingenuity — needed to get men out there and then safely home.

*****

Following the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts — Gus Grissom,  first spacewalker Ed White and Roger Chaffee — on the launch pad in January 1967, coverage of the space race took a deeper focus and an even higher priority. Now, NASA had to investigate and improve its craft on the fly, with less than three years left to reach Kennedy’s stated goal. And the networks conveyed that sense of urgency, and we joyously, curiously went along.

The big leap in our collective interest came at Christmastime 1968, when Apollo 8 became the first craft to circle the moon, and the names (Frank) Borman, (Jim) Lovell (who would later command Apollo 13) and (Bill) Anders became household names … when we saw what our planet truly looked like from space for the first time. And when we heard the crew take turns reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve. In that week, in addition to providing a sense of calm to end one of the most turbulent years in American history, we truly knew, at last, that it was only a matter of time before a spacecraft actually landed on our green-cheese satellite. And that the Soviets weren’t gonna be able to beat us there, be it by the end of ’69 or not.

And we were at a collective frenzy of interest by the summer of ’69. The names of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were already etched in our heads well before the launch.

The day before the landing, we visited my grandmother in Brooklyn. On the way back, my father stopped (with a little prodding from yours truly, then 8 years old) to fill up at a Gulf station along the Hutchinson River Parkway. Gulf was the main sponsor of NBC’s space coverage, and in the pre-oil embargo days when gas stations gave away or sold premiums, my folks walked out of the station with an Apollo book for us called We Came in Peace (as in the inscription on the plaque the astronauts would leave behind: “We came in peace for all mankind”) and die-cut lunar module sheets for my brother Jim and me.

And the next day, a rainy one, I sat on the living room floor and dutifully punched out the pieces of my cardboard lunar module, to fold and bend and fit together to make my own mini-Eagle … in plenty of time to take in the actual moon landing, which took place in midafternoon our time.

And here’s where the similarity between the coverage of Apollo 11 and Curiosity comes together: We held our breaths for several unending minutes as both missions showed us simulated images of the respective craft landings. Networks would occasionally cut to guys working the room at the Houston Space Center; the Curiosity webcast would show the blue-shirted crew at JPL. And we marveled. As mentioned. the Curiosity brought back this sense of thrill that we hadn’t really seen since Apollo 11.

We all caught a long break for dinner or whatever to collect ourselves before the big moment.

*****

I thought NASA’s choice of first moonwalker was a cool one. Neil Armstrong was a good-looking guy, for one. In a way, he was a superhero to me — in my mind’s eye, he looked at least a little bit like Adam West out of his Batman costume, and I was a big fan of the Batman reruns.

And I’m sure, looking at it with adult eyes, that there were other factors in selecting Armstrong: the same Midwestern Ohio mold as hero John Glenn; a pocket-protector-geek mentality; a sense of humility that was best personified later in life by his extreme privacy; and his ability to keep calm under absolute, death-defying pressure. After all, these qualities prevented him and Dave Scott from becoming the first casualties in space three years earlier, when, thanks to a stuck thruster, Gemini 8 gyrated wildly during a docking exercise.

And, for one of the few times in world history, we all watched with fascination as Armstrong, through the poor reception on our box, finally stepped out of the lunar module and onto the ladder. Actually, it was almost unwatchable. And as a kid who was up ’til midnight, way past his bedtime, it was more like “Okay, cool; that’s it?”

Silly child.

But what Armstrong did will far outlast the body that failed him yesterday (and I have a hard time believing he was 82 — a week and a half younger than my father). What he did was the capstone of millennia of daydreams, the culmination of determination and genius on a furious, compressed scale not seen since. And we’re still reaping the benefits of the Apollo program, not far from a half-century later.

Then the lunar landings (yes, even after Apollo 13) grew more old-hat, our collective interest waned, the beancounters stepped in and slashed the space budgets in the mid-’70s, and our expectations grew increasingly diminished. And our focus grew increasingly on weapons at the expense of peaceful and meaningful explorations of other bodies in space. And on the privatization of space travel at the emasculation of the once-godlike NASA. And Aldrin, who followed Armstrong onto the lunar surface, competed on Dancing With the Stars.

We’re missing that sense of wonder these days. Even with Curiosity — which isn’t the first spacecraft to have landed on Mars. And if Curiosity didn’t arouse our curiosity about traveling to other planets, then Armstrong’s passing certainly should. Hell, we should be a lot farther along in space exploration than we are 43 years later.

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