Fifty years ago, at 10:56 p.m., July 20, 1969, I was sixteen years old, sitting in front of a black-and-white TV, watching a grainy picture that could have used more contrast, and listening — along with just over 1,000,000,000 human beings, a quarter of the entire human race — as Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the lunar surface and said the magic words about one step that was also "a giant leap for mankind."
I was sixteen. I knew I was seeing history made, and yet the full scope of what that step meant eluded me. I didn't think it had, at the time. It is only looking back, in retrospect, that a man who will be 67 in October of this year truly UNDERSTANDS what that moment meant.
We lose track of the magic, when we descend into petty bickering, into name-calling and divisiveness in the name of political agendas and ideologies and national rivalries. When we forget that our brothers and sisters are still our brothers and sisters, even when we disagree. When we forget it can be possible to simply be WRONG, and yet not be evil. When we turn our eyes away from the moon — away from the STARS — to focus on how small and contemptible a creature humanity can be.
But on that night, in that South Carolina living room, sitting with my parents, my older brother, my sister, the nine-year-old kid brother who'd been allowed to stay up late, what I saw — what we all heard — was Shakespearean. It was proof of Hamlet's words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: "What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god." Oh, not always. Alexander Pope was perfectly correct when HE said: "Many men have been capable of doing a wise thing, more a cunning thing, but very few a generous thing." Yet that night was Hamlet's. That night, Neil Armstrong was humanity at our best, speaking for every single one of us.
When I was sixteen, I celebrated that moment as "We kicked the Soviets' ass!" I saw the adventure, I remembered the thunderous Saturn V launches, I felt the pride of what we'd done. Oh, I remembered Gus Grissom, the All-Star of the astronauts, and I remembered Apollo 1. I remembered Roger Chaffee and Ed White. Challenger hadn't happened yet, or Columbia, but I knew NASA and NASA's families had already paid a price to pursue the stars. So, yes, it was a solemn moment, but mostly it was a triumphant one. Another moment of American triumphalism, I suppose. And God knows enough Americans celebrated it as exactly that.
Since then, I've been to Canaveral. I was there for the final shuttle launch, when Atlantis retired the program. I've stood on top of the Saturn V assembly building. I watched Challenger die on television — not in black-and-white, but in glorious, tragic color. I've seen us step back from manned missions to the Moon, decide we're not ready yet to tackle putting a man or a woman on Mars. A half-century. That's how long I've watched the magic moment receding into my rearview mirror and wondered where the next truly MAGIC moment would be.
Yet in the process, I've come to understand something that sixteen-year-old me didn't. Oh, it WAS a moment of American triumphalism. A glorious confirmation that the wealthiest, most powerful, most scientifically advanced nation on the face of the Earth had won the race to the Moon. But it was something far more than that, too. It was the moment when ANY human being, regardless of race, nation, ethnicity, gender — any of the teeny-tiny, chauvinistic, antagonistic, envy-driven "us" groups into which we constantly subdivide ourselves — set foot on the surface of a heavenly body that wasn't Earth. It was, indeed, a giant leap for mankind, but even Neil Armstrong, the magnificent man who had made it, had left out one word. It was a giant leap for ALL mankind. Because that was whose banner he truly carried that day, whether he — or sixteen-year-old me — fully understood it.
When Armstrong stood on the lunar surface, all of us — every single human being — stood there with him, under that incredibly black sky, on that bright lunar plain, under those pinprick, un-winking stars. WE stood there, coming perhaps as Americans but BEING a species venturing out of the confining envelope of our own atmosphere for the very first time.
We WERE Hamlet's soliloquy.
And I saw it. I saw it as it happened, and no one who wasn't there will ever see that moment, that accomplishment, AS IT HAPPENS. It's not just an archive for those of us who were there. It's part of who and what we are, even if we don't think about it except on anniversaries.
There are those who bemoan the way in which the wick has been turned down under the drive to conquer other planets in our own solar system. I'd really like to be one of the people who sees not just the first landing on our moon, but the first human footprint on another PLANET, as well. It's one of the reasons I write what I write.
But those satellites in near-orbit, those missions to the international space station, that so many of us decry as a retreat, as paddling around in the shallows in dugout canoes, are the workaday, pragmatic Midas treasure of Mercury, and Gemini, and Apollo, and the shuttle. They are the rich inheritance of Grissom, Chaffee, and White. Of Vladimir Komrov, Georgy Dubrovolsky, Christa McAullife, Ellison Onizuka, Kalpana Chawla, Ilan Ramon, Laurel Clark, and all the other men and women who died climbing that Himalayan peak out of Earth's atmosphere. They are the North Sea fishermen, trawling those icy waters on the eve of Europe's explosion across another sea that was just as dangerous, just as treacherous, for those who ventured across it.
They are the seedbed of our future "out there." They are the nursery in which we nurture the next "great leap" for ALL mankind.
We will go out to the planets, and eventually out to the stars, the way we have gone everywhere else. We will go with all our frailties, all our internecine clan warfare, all our divisiveness . . . and with all the magnificence of which our species is capable when we ask the question, open the door, launch the thundering fire-plume rocket, because we are determined to do the other thing humanity has always done.
To rise above ourselves, to remember those who died, and those who strove, and those who triumphed when we, too, set out to go where no one has ever gone before.
The stars are waiting for us. They are calling to us.
One day, one of my children, or my grandchildren, or my great-grandchildren, will ANSWER that call and carry humanity's banner to them.
And THAT is what today is truly the anniversary of.
(с, David Mark Weber)