Monday, November 28, 2005

"Your grandfather's moon shot"

A friend and I saw the Omnimax film Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon narrated by Tom Hanks. The beginning and ending sandwich premise is overdone, butt the middle is wonderfully evocative of the era in which I grew up—the era of the Apollo missions.

To my parents, the Apollo missions were major events, and I remember watching at least a few of them. It didn't matter that much of the television footage was of the launcher on the pad or of the men at Mission Control monitoring grey, flickering screens. We didn't want to miss the critical moment: "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . liftoff! We have liftoff!" We sat on the edge of our seats at home and counted along with Mission Control, trying not to get ahead in our excitement and impatience.

Liftoff, that fiery, roaring, thunderous, glowing moment that the television of the day could not do justice to, always signaled the beginning of a letdown to me. There was so much buildup to that emotionally intense moment—and then it was over. The craft would get smaller and smaller, and after the last of the launcher broke away, I felt a sense of both completion and anticlimax.

Even when Neil Armstrong took his first historic steps on the lunar surface, I didn't feel the same sense of relief, accomplishment, and pride that I think many if not most adults did. I was simply too young to understand. Countdowns and liftoffs made sense to my single-digit mind; the historical significance and the national sense of pride did not. Now I can look back and appreciate what I was privileged to witness—a daring experiment that millions of us simultaneously viewed and discussed, each launch an event that brought together people of all politics, faiths, ages, and avocations for "one brief shining moment," glued to our television sets (some of which were still black and white!).

I watched the launch of the first shuttle, but emotionally it wasn't the same experience. The space program had come under scrutiny, many wanted to cut or eliminate the expense, many didn't understand the benefits, the battle with the Soviets had changed, and I was older and perhaps a bit jaded. Maybe we all were.

I was at work when the Challenger exploded; like everyone else, I was stunned as I saw the footage replayed again and again on the news. But I wonder, at that time of day, how many people were watching the launch, how many had planned their day around it, how many would have talked of it for days afterward had it been successful, that is, a routine launch. By then, the sense of wonder had passed, and sending astronauts into space had become so commonplace that all of us began taking it for granted.

At the beginning of Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon, several children are asked to name any of the Apollo astronauts. They can't (although they come up with some amusing current cultural references). As James Loewen notes in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, even the most recent history can be the first forgotten. Once, Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon inspired generations of viewers. Now, even NASA itself seems determined to downplay the achievements of the Apollo crews and to undermine our memories of wonder, just as the countdown to the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 should be beginning. The following is from NASA's Web site:

"Before the end of the next decade, NASA astronauts will again explore the surface of the moon. And this time, we're going to stay, building outposts and paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars and beyond. There are echoes of the iconic images of the past, but it won't be your grandfather's moon shot."

There's nothing wrong with "your grandfather's moon shot." There had never been anything like it before for Americans, and may not be again for a very long time. It was a moment that helped to define us, as World War II defined my father's generation. Rather than downplaying Apollo in their marketing hype, NASA should be reveling in it, taking full advantage of its remarkable emotive and historical power to excite us about future exploration. (Note to NASA: "Building outposts" isn't exactly the most compelling goal or prose imaginable. Take a lesson from Armstrong.)

Let's never allow space or space travel to become ordinary, or NASA to transform it into another dull commodity. "Out there" may be our last repository of mystery and awe.

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