On this day forty years ago man first walked on the moon.
Really it should not surprise me that my son views my childhood as something from the ancient past akin to the discovery of fire, invention of the wheel, or the dark times before the internet when most information was in book form. When I can get him into a library his thirteen year-old sensibilities are almost overwhelmed at all the books carefully organized on the shelves with people browsing the aisles hunting some sort of important information. Sadly, he feels that if something cannot be found using the great god Google it more than likely has no relevance to the affairs of daily life. Given his attitude I have never really explained to him how the simple browsing of book reading the words and admiring the illustrations held so much enjoyment and wonder for me as a child.
During the late 1960’s when I was much younger than my son is now I could often find sanctuary in the collection of encyclopedias that occupied an old bookshelf in a corner of my parent’s house. Being from a family of modest means the encyclopedias I refer to were not the expensive Britannica series but the modest “Book of Knowledge” series that was being sold piecemeal at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store. For every twenty-dollar purchase at the grocery store you could buy another volume of that year’s edition for about five dollars. While this might seem a strange way of purchasing a set of encyclopedia I thought nothing of it at the time, especially as after we got the volume with a huge section on the space program. Brave Russian cosmonauts and the men here in America with the “Right Stuff” riding into the sky in the Mercury and Gemini projects were my heroes “boldly going where no one had gone before.” One of my earliest memories have me sitting with my grandfather, dad, and uncles watching on television the countdown of some rocket about to blast off from Cape Canaveral carrying with it the hopes and dreams of a nation reaching for both a distant future and for something far greater than themselves.
The summation of that endeavor was achieved when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the dusty gray plains of a dead world and looked back on the only place that even now we know harbors life. That summer of 69 was for some reason one of the most vivid I can remember. I guess the energy and wonder of a child allows for such things at that time. I remember driving the various librarians both at kindergarten and the county libraries crazy demanding new books on what we were doing in space then and what we would be doing in the glorious future.
As much as my home encyclopedias lacked the regal prestige of the more expensive sets they did allow an option to purchase yearly updates that would be shipped straight to a person’s home. The purchase of the update for 1969 was a foregone conclusion for several reasons. However for my grandfather it was mainly to satisfy the desires of a child still ablaze with the most incredible adventure in human history.
It came about a full year later and to this day I somehow remember carefully opening the box it came in and then running off to my room to read about the preceding year’s events. Much to my surprise that update also had a future timeline of projects NASA wanted to pursue. For a kid already lost in space the illustrations and short explanations of future missions had me more than completely enthralled.
Almost flowing along the pages were conceptual drawing of spacecraft designs that showed how over the coming decades NASA wanted to get the shuttle up and running, a space station built, return to the moon on a permanent basis, then on to Mars. As the twenty-first century began we were suppose to see the establishment of bases on Mars serviced by nuclear powered shuttles running routinely between Earth and Mars. At the end of that timeline a couple of decades into the twenty-first century it was further mentioned of manned mission to the outer planets. Maybe someone had seen "2001: A Space Odyssey" a few too many times, but I didn't care, it was a hopeful future, at least for me, and worthy of the people we were then. However, even during the glory days of Apollo voices could be heard saying that it was unfair to spend billions on space with Earth awash in problems such as poverty, famine, war, and prejudices. It was cheerfully offered by some of those voices that we should clean up our messes here then we would be free to explore. Even being as young as I was as the Apollo program ended my disappointment was tempered by the simplicity of the argument that we had much to do on this planet. Exploring other worlds was of little concern to someone who did not have enough food or water, a decent school, or access to a doctor.
Forty years ago today the men of Apollo 11 set foot on that barren surface and it set me to wondering not only far along how far we have come on solving those problems that have plagued humanity but on what sort of people we are now.
Despite programs designed during the 60’s and 70’s to correct the problems of poverty and ignorance we have seen the America we were then evolve into a collection of banal and spoiled self-centered children. Many have enthusiastically embraced a cold contempt for those unable to participate in society because of economic reasons, discrimination, or handicaps and feel an undue slight when they are forced to surrender a small portion of the advantages they feel is their God-given rights.
American citizenship has been replaced with American consumerism where we define our lives by cheap imported goods paid for by the credit card whose terms take on the characteristics of a new kind of serfdom. This new serfdom is also personified in a narrow worldview where everyone else is “either for us, or against us.” Given this we completely fail to understand when a portion of the world weary of our pretentious meddling, refuses to go along with our imperial adventures in securing resources and even actively resists our chosen syncopates who cravenly do our bidding.
Feeling once again that our power and prestige should define the way the world works we paint those who disagree into boogeyman, some very real and evil and others we conveniently imagine. Because of such a view we have stumble into two quagmires in some ways quite similar to Vietnam and like the last time we have neither the money, troops, or enough willpower to end.
So, after forty years the world that was supposed to be more fair and equal for all had been more or less permanently postponed. The war on poverty was called because the welfare of fellow Americans became inconvenient and might force those with more means to sacrifice a little for those who do not. We have though sacrificed a large portion of our future for our lifestyle that we cannot support or hope, in the long run, to sustain. Instead of the people in the 1960’s that looked at the stars and dreamed of things greater than themselves and expanding the avenues of the human experience to as many people as possible we have become a small people and maybe hopelessly self indulgent. We are scared that someone might take what we have here at home and fearful of the perceived shadows lurking overseas. Such a people before long tear themselves apart and are soon relegated to chapters in a history book. It does not have to end that way, we can do far better.