Journey to the Moon, in reverse


The 50th anniversary of man’s moon landing is here, and it appears there are two camps of people: those who care, and those who don’t.

For most of my life, the feat of putting a man on the moon was more of a punchline than anything, useful for pointing out the absurdities of modern life. We put a man on the moon, but vending machines still can’t handle credit cards? We put a man on the moon, but automatic toilets still don’t know when your butt has cleared the seat? And so on.

Maybe it was a given that I’d trivialize the event simply because I wasn’t around to see it. By the time I was born, the Apollo moon missions were over, and we had moved on to the next big idea -- putting enormous buses with wings into orbit so we could tool around in space. I grew up with these “space shuttles” and their kin, visiting them in the National Air and Space Museum and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, at a time when Canaveral was an equal attraction to Disney World. I saw it all: shuttles, boosters and rockets, satellites and unmanned capsules, old control rooms. In my childhood, the space shuttle was an everyday object, just like the television. Back then, we had a little 12-inch color TV, and it was on such a device that millions watched in 1986 as the Challenger space shuttle broke apart in plumes of smoke and flames. I couldn’t tell you if that was my first encounter with death, but I remember my disbelief that the curly-haired women on board were gone forever.


As with any innovation that preceded one’s birth, I had little reason to marvel at the story of America’s space program. I didn’t know the difference between Challenger and Discovery or Saturn and Apollo. I roughly knew that the Russians and maybe a monkey had gotten to space first, but that story was ancient history -- and thus uninteresting.

How do the events of the past come alive for those who emerge later in time? It’s a question as important as it is vexing. How do we understand wars? How can we remember genocides and holocausts? What can we learn from disasters and accidents? We claim to remember our follies in order to avoid them, but more often than not we do a terrible job. Can we get to a better world by remembering man’s triumphs instead? Perhaps. Especially these days, where it seems like all news is end-times news. But how can we channel the power of our greatest achievements as a species when they are in the past?

There is one way, the same way I came to care about the moon landing - by listening to the stories of those who lived through them. I did not go looking for stories about NASA’s Apollo program, but they found me. As a result, I’m discovering the moon landing in reverse — rather than the excitement of the event fading away over time, my interest has grown, due to a few chance encounters. The chronology is as follows:

July 2017

I write this blog post about the loss of the Amazon rainforest and how my sense of natural wonder was stoked by leafing through National Geographic magazines during class. I include a picture of this National Geographic cover from May 1969.


To me, it’s just a whimsical picture, but my dad hones in on two articles listed on the cover, “Apollo 8: A Most Fantastic Voyage” and “And Now to Touch the Moon’s Forbidding Face.” I hadn’t even noticed them, but my dad suddenly remembers Apollo 8 like it was yesterday. He goes on to tell me that it was Apollo 8 that took the first picture of our planet from space, the famous “Earth-Rise” photograph in which our glowing half-sphere emerges from the black jewel-box of space. I am for a minute taken aback. I’ve always known what the earth looks like in space - its blue and green and (increasingly) brown hues, the familiar outlines of the continents, the clouds artfully swirled over its surface. It never occurred to me that there was a time where we didn’t know what we looked like. It never occurred to me what it must have felt like to see that image for the first time and know so many things for a fact: the beautiful colors of its life-sustaining surfaces, its precarious uniqueness and solitude, its diminutive footprint on the surface of infinity. Later, William Anders, the astronaut who took the photo, would say, “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.”

earthrise space.jpg

April 2017

I visit Wayne in Florida where his trio is performing, and we stay with Gregg, an avid supporter of the arts. Gregg is also a retired air traffic controller. I eventually get the chance to quiz Gregg about his career, which I find fascinating in part because a career assessment in junior high told me I should either be a canning plant employee, a ballerina, or an air traffic controller. I became none of those, so I figure now is a chance to know more about my missed destiny. Gregg obliges, telling us about the training and how tough it was, about the control center where he worked and how American airspace is divided up into grids monitored by different teams. He tells us about his fierce promise to himself that no one die on his watch, and how he retired having kept that promise. We ask him how he decided to go into this profession, and Gregg tells us how, as a kid, he watched on tv as Mission Control in Houston guided the space program to the moon, and how he wanted to be in that room, to be on a team working to achieve something great. And how he wasn’t alone, how the space program inspired an entire generation of young people into aeronautics careers. And then, I swear I saw this man, more precise and calm in thinking and words than almost anyone I’ve met, pause and tear up, ever so slightly. At that moment, I wondered what we have on tv today that is even a fraction so inspiring.

July 2019

I’m on a plane to Vancouver, and for once, it’s not a crack-of-dawn flight where I want to go right back to sleep. Wayne starts right in on a superhero movie as per usual, but I always take forever to browse the listings. I come across a National Geographic documentary on the Apollo missions to the moon. Vaguely aware that the anniversary is coming up, I click on it. Because of my dad and Gregg.

It’s as if my moon landing education is being orchestrated by a higher being, because I now have been primed to take in everything in this documentary. Certainly, I gain book knowledge: how the various modules of the spacecraft worked, how each subsequent Apollo mission tested out incremental step towards landing safely on the moon, how some of our brightest men and women were lost in the effort. I also take in the cultural images of 1960’s America: nearly everyone in Mission Control is a white male, some smoking cigars as they work. When Apollo 13 radios Houston that they have a problem, the engineers whip out their pencils and start doing calculations - on paper. The wives of the astronauts are suitably demure on camera when asked how they felt about their husbands being in space. Everything is in black and white.

More than anything, I have been primed for the emotional impact. I feel so many things, especially pride. I nearly stand up in my seat and salute every time I see the letters “USA” emblazoned on spacecraft, and especially when the American flag is planted on the moon. I feel that this is evidence for what I’ve always known - that ours is a great country, one where leaders challenge citizens to dream big, one with the collective determination and ingenuity to make those dreams reality.

A proud young American.

A proud young American.

At the same time, I am also moved by images of mankind’s unity. As Apollo 11 descends, gingerly, to the moon’s surface, as Neil Armstrong emerges from the capsule and turns on a tv camera, people all over the world stop in the middle of their day to watch Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin place their footprints on the moon’s surface, and then applaud, cheer, or cry. We were all one at that moment. As Armstrong said, it was an advance not for him or for the USA, but for all of mankind. I cannot think of the last time we were gathered together as a species. We cannot even agree to stop destroying the only planet sustaining all of us.

Lastly, I tear up during, of all things, the recording of a phone call by Nixon to the astronauts after those first steps. Despite history’s attempt to demote Nixon from our pantheon of Presidents, I am moved by the call. I am moved by the dignity of the words, by the expressions of gratitude, and by invocations to a greater good. When was the last time a Presidential conversation did those things? Here’s the historic phone call:

Nixon: Hello, Neil and Buzz. I'm talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can't tell you how proud we all are of what you've done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.

Armstrong: Thank you, Mr. President. It's a great honor and privilege for us to be here, representing not only the United States, but men of peace of all nations, and with interest and curiosity, and men with a vision for the future. It's an honor for us to be able to participate here today.

After these encounters with the moon landing, it now means something to me. The event represents not only our technological advances but our spiritual capacities. We yearn to explore the very frontiers of our imaginations, work together to achieve previously unthinkable greatness, and have the humility to realize our individual insignificance in the face of that greatness. These are some of our best human qualities. I could stand to be reminded of all of that, and of the worth of listening to people’s stories, every time I look at the moon.