"We made it." That's what everybody said--people from France and Sierra Leone and China and Kansas and even our enemies, the Russians. Yeah, the Americans did it, but everybody felt it. "We." It was maybe the last time the world was ever so united.
My husband, the NASA physicist, made me see In the Shadow of the Moon today, a documentary about the 24 men who have actually been to the moon. They're old now--it's a shock to see those weathered faces--but they have a lot to say. I wouldn't have gone on my own, probably, but I'm glad he talked me into it. It was amazing. And it made me remember.
Apollo 8 was the first spacecraft to actually get to the moon. It made it there on Dec. 24, 1968, a date that sticks in my mind because it was the day I woke up. I'd been hit by a car a week earlier, getting off a school bus on the last day of school before Christmas vacation. The car was going about 50 mph, I'm told, and I was nearly killed. Christmas Eve, a week later, was my first coherent memory after the accident. I was 13 years old, and all by myself in the hospital (except for Margaret Walker, bless her soul, a lady from our church who came to sit with me). It was the year of the Hong Kong flu epidemic and everybody else in my family was at home--not at death's door, exactly, but within sight of it. The only part of me that was not in bandages was my right eye, and through this eye I watched those blurry images on a black-and-white TV somebody had hooked up and put on my bedside table. The astronauts were going behind the moon, out of radio contact with the Earth, which nobody had ever done before; if something happened back there, we would never hear from them again. It was a fearful and thrilling moment. They read from the Book of Genesis that night, and I remember them wishing us all a Merry Christmas--all of us "on the good earth." I thought: wow.
The moon rocks were cool, but history is largely a story of unintended consequences, and the unintended consequence of the Apollo missions was the birth of the environmental movement. Rachel Carson had warned us about DDT back in 1962 in Silent Spring, but it was actually seeing this luminous planet of ours floating in the blackness of the cosmos which seemed to trigger a slow recognition (still dawning, sadly, in the Bush administration) of what a fragile thing any kind of life is, how improbable its existence, what a narrow margin we occupy in an inhospitable universe. And of course that unforgettable image--"Earthrise" --taken on a later Apollo mission, probably the most famous photograph ever made, helped us see what the astronauts saw.
The Apollo missions seemed to take place in a cultural bubble: outside, the world was going straight to hell, race riots were erupting in major cities, we were firebombing Vietnam and Laos. Now, looking back, that turmoil seems...well, not unimportant, but somehow diminished. What was really important then? It wasn't politics; it was that adventure we were on, that thing that had the whole world looking up. I felt a shiver of goosebumps when those Saturn V rockets fired up and the rocket took off with the words "United States of America" on the outside. I feel it still.
My God, a country that can do that--a mongrel nation made up of political refugees and adventurers and human chattel and social rejects from all over--a nation like that can do anything. Anything. The only difference between then and now is that back then, we believed it.