The Journey of a Thousand Miles

Farewell, Neil Armstrong


Earth from the Moon

Earthrise from the moon, in the more common orientation, from the Apollo 8 mission. Photo: NASA Manned Spacecraft Center – 24 December 1968.

A black-and-white paper poster of the picture above hung above my father’s study window until about five years ago, when we finally took it down – yellowed, nearly shredded with age, crumbling. We don’t remember when he put it up in there, but it must have been soon after the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission that marked the first human footstep on a surface other than planet Earth.

I grew up with it.

I grew up with all the Apollo missions. In an era when the world’s citizens couldn’t record television broadcasts on video or pluck them off the Internet, my father would bring his giant reel-to-reel audiotape recorder up to our black-and-white television and position the wobbly external microphone as close as possible to record each mission. Between ages 3 and 7, I watched the tape library swell as the Americans in Project Apollo left Earth 11 times and made 5 successful landings on the moon.

The first touchdown, of course, was Neil Armstrong‘s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And yes, he forgot the article “a” – making his mission also the first to vex copy editors for decades to come.

I was too young when Armstrong imprinted the sole of his spacesuit’s boot in the lunar dust to grasp exactly what was happening, much less the historical nature of the landing. But in the next three years, my view of the present and future took a significant shape from the missions. To look up at the moon was to ask about not “the man in the moon” but “the man on the moon.” (“Are they up there now, Daddy?” “Yep – wave to them!”) The moon was not just a place we might go; it was where we were.

Among my childhood “learning toys” were a wooden puzzle of the United States, a tin globe of the world, and an inflatable moon marked with the seas and mountain ranges of this new territory: Mare Tranquillitatis, the “Sea of Tranquility” where Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin debarked; Oceanus Procellarum, the “Ocean of Storms” where Apollo 12 landed; the Fra Mauro Highlands that the crew of Apollo 13 looked longingly upon before having to make the harrowing return home, and that Apollo 14 later succeeded in reaching. The names didn’t always trip lightly off my tongue, but they tickled my imagination and introduced me to the human vocabulary of terrains. More, they were places to visit – just like Seattle, or Milwaukee, or the Great Lakes, or the Grand Canyon … or the Alps, London, Oslo, the Himalayas.

The moon was an extension of childhood geography – a place I might well go, when I grew up.

Near the end of the Apollo program, with so many space buggies and flags and descent stages of the lunar modules left lying around up there, it even became a place to clean up (in the brief environmental consciousness of the 1970s). My grandmother and I entertained ourselves and each other for many hours, designing the incredibly complex, multi-room rocket in which we were going to travel to the moon “to pick up the trash.”

Then the missions stopped, introducing the all-too-familiar (and selectively used) term “budget cuts” to my vocabulary.

My mother died a year later.

Skylab, the 1973 space station launched two months after she died, had only a brief career, with no more human presence on heavenly bodies – only orbiting a few years in a functional work setting high above the planet. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project two years later returned humans to space, but in a political show of détente more than the hopeful atmosphere of exploration that had governed my acquaintance to humankind in space. We didn’t return to space for another six years, with the launch of Space Shuttle Columbia as part of the ominously titled Space Transportation System (STS) – by which time I was heading into my senior year in high school.

Remembering Neil Armstrong and that early surge of activity – five moon landings in four years! more visits than we made to my grandmother in Milwaukee – I wonder a little: “transportation” to where? For we have not left our footprints on the moon again, nor on any other body in space.

We have left tire tracks. A glimmer of childhood’s enthusiasm returned to me three weeks ago when the Mars rover Curiosity landed successfully (and defiantly, given the widespread media skepticism). Sitting up to watch NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory track the rover’s descent into the Aeolis Palus plain in Gale Crater, witnessing these professionals’ increasing exuberance as everything went according to plan, I felt the old tingle that had come hearing those old reel-to-reel tapes replayed; seeing those suited men on television with their scoops and cameras, hopping in the lower gravity against the blackness of space; knowing that, somehow, “we’re out there,” on the surface of a territory across the vast blackness of space.

I wasn’t the only one watching. In this age of social networking, I hopped over to post my relief and enthusiasm on my Facebook wall – to find three other diehards, like me, in the news feed. That all three are younger than I am by 15-20 years heartens me, as did the JPL staff whooping over the first high-res images coming in.

Maybe these will be, in their ways, the next Neil Armstrongs. Maybe my elder goddaughter, herself finishing up high school, will be among the trailblazers, and instead of writing a blog about what didn’t happen when she is in her late 40s, she’ll invite me to a launch pad in the next couple decades and wave as she sets forth where no one from Earth has gone before – or at least, since 1972. Maybe I will be able to give my six-month-old younger goddaughter an inflatable moon and Mars in a few years, helping her see these as places she may choose go to when she grows up: like Bergen, and Tromsø, and Paris, and Tokyo, and Beijing, and Philadelphia, and San Francisco….

Tonight, however, I remember a man who has just taken a small step out of this existence and a giant leap into the true unknown – and who was the first to help me take the moon for granted as a possible destination.

Farewell, Neil Armstrong. Godspeed.

And thank you, astronauts and engineers worldwide, with us still and no longer, for how you have shaped my world with possibilities – and how you continue to fight against the tides of “common sense” to reach into the future.

Carry on.

Apollo 11 Crew

The Apollo 11 Prime Crew (left to right): Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Photo: NASA – 1 May 1969.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

– Lao Tzu