Monday, July 20, 2009

Fly Me to the Moon (Again!)

It is obligatory today, I suppose, for all bloggers to blog on the first manned lunar landing, forty years ago today, so here goes. I was fifteen, in a left-wing summer camp in the Catskills, a newly-minted Marxist, a would-be rebel with multiple causes, always eager to find another to wrong to right. But we stayed up late that night, listening to a crummy little transistor radio. Sure we guffawed when Nixon spoke to the astronauts, and mocked when Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon, warning the moon people to watch out for napalm raids. So we saw America as the incarnation of all imperialistic rottennesses; we certainly hadn’t forgotten or forgivern Vietnam, and we certainly knew that the prime motivation for the space race had not been an objective pursuit of knowledge, but to beat the Ruskies to the punch. None of this mattered. We sat around the little radio, entranced and enthralled, waiting for Neil Armstrong to plop down his foot, and say something. (The first thing he said on the moon, btw, was “contact light. Okay, engine stop. ACA out of detent. Modes control both auto, descent engine command override, off. Engine arm off. 413 is in.”) It was, we were sure, one of the greatest moments in the history of humanity. And it was.

And, where are we, forty years on? Why has space exploration seemed so paltry ever since? Why haven’t any humans been to the moon since 1972? Why no attempt to land on Mars? Why has space exploration (save the occasional spectacular accident) failed to generate headlines? 2001 will be remembered for September 11th, and not for voyages to the Moon or Jupiter. There are many theories as to what happened. Tom Wolfe, in the Times yesterday, to my surprise, actually wasn’t too bad. Someone I read last week blamed Philip K. Dick, for replacing the science fiction dreams of space exploration that filled the stories of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke with drugged out dystopias. Perhaps, but I really liked Ubik, Dick’s moon novel.
Anyway, my pet theory is that for some reason, on July 20, 1969, Americans stopped caring transportation, and started to think about communication. From 1903 to 1969 we went from a thirteen second trip in a Wright flyer, to a two-week voyage to the moon. We went from Stanley Steamers to cars going at 200 mph at racetracks. And it seems to me, in the past forty years, our technological innovations in transportation have been absolutely nil; we drive the same way, we fly the same way, and we fly in the space in the same way, except we don’t fly to the moon. In the interim, we have invented generation after generation of new computer technology, we download, we tweet, we google, but as we have wrapped ourselves in layer upon layer of electronic communications, we have forgotten about the world we live in, or the worlds we might explore. The need for energy efficiency, for better mass transit, and all the mundane transportation modes, if done properly, will lead to the stars. Today, the giant leap mankind needs (excuse the gendered language, political correctness fans), will be composed of myriad small steps. The sermon endeth.


Rob Snyder said...

Like Peter, I can remember where I was when the astronauts landed on the moon. And while I can't remember whether I heard the words that announced one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, I do recall feeling a strange kinship with the astronauts.

I, too was in summer camp--Camp Floodwood, on Rollins Pond in the Adriondacks, where big lakes are called ponds. It was a wilderness camp: we cooked our own food, slept in tents, and daily paddled a mile or so across the lake to pick up food from our camp quartermaster.

We anticipated listening to the event by radio, thanks to an improvised wire aerial strung up in a tree. (Some of us wondered if the first word spoken on the moon would be a scream of horror at the sight of a space creature.)

But when a rumor got out that the rangers across the lake had a television set, we set out in our canoes to watch with them. No luck. We reached the other side of the lake and either couldn't find the rangers or were turned away. Then we realized our dilemma.

We looked back across the lake. In the middle of the night, every mile of shore on the opposite side of the lake was dark, featureless forest. How would we find our campsite? I can't say I felt lost, but I did feel lonely and far from home.

For a minute, I considered navigating by deliberate error: we'd paddle well to the right of our campsite, then proceed carefully along the shore until we found it. But that would take lots of time and paddling.

All of a sudden, one of the fathers at our campsite put a lantern on the beech. From more than a mile across the lake, it shone like a beacon.

We paddled across the lake, homing in on the light. I, for one, felt a kinship with astronauts far from home, navigating across space to a small spot that would be the planet earth.

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