By Ken Trainor
Would you like to swing on a star,
Carry moonbeams home in a jar,
And be better off than you are?
And then there were eight.
Neil Armstrong's death last week sent me into a tailspin of memories and musings about the space program, which played a central role in my 1960s' childhood, filling me with optimism and pride and, most of all, wonder.
Like Armstrong, I believe passionately in manned space exploration, especially making it more accessible to more people (I believe our survival as a species depends on it). And like Armstrong, I have been disappointed and disillusioned by America's four-decades of drift and indifference, ever since Gene Cernan (Bellwood native, Proviso East grad) became the last man to walk on the moon in 1972.
Twelve men set foot on the moon. With Armstrong's death, only eight remain. The youngest is about to turn 77. By the 50th anniversary of the Apollo XI landing (July 20, 2019), the youngest will be 83. In 20 years, there will likely be no one left alive who walked on the moon and no prospects for manned flights to either the moon or Mars.
The news of Armstrong's demise also sent me searching through a remarkable book by a little-known writer named Andrew Smith titled, Moondust – In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth. Smith spent a year talking to the surviving "moon men" to see how the experience changed their lives. But it also turned into a personal odyssey as he tried to understand why the Apollo moon landings still exert such a hold on his imagination.
I know the feeling.
"From the start," he wrote back in 2005, "I'd been aware of a tension between the sepia attachments of my childhood and the curiosity I felt to see beyond them. … The issue was simple: Without its cloak of childish wonder, was Apollo worth the costs?"
He thought about the various arguments used to defend those costs — national security, science, economic stimulation, space exploration. None, he said, was convincing enough to win over a skeptical public.
"For the longest time, it seemed obvious to me that I was staring into the remains of the most immaculate folly ever conceived by a species for whom folly is a specialist subject. … I'd been trying to make sense of this enterprise which seemed to make no sense, which reason told me to dismiss, but which I couldn't."
Then he had an epiphany one evening as he contemplated "a one-shot skinny white-chocolate cinnamon latte with extra foam in Starbucks, thinking that only Americans could turn coffee-making into a proxy branch of rocket science."
He thought about something else President Kennedy had said to Congress in 1961, when he laid down the challenge to go to the moon by the end of the decade — that the goal was not to defeat the Soviets but to win the hearts and minds of the rest of the world.
"Apollo was a performance," Smith writes, "pure and simple. JFK wanted something to capture the global imagination, and to excite his own people, and he found it. … Kennedy knew he was tapping into something far deeper and more primal than an urge to humiliate the Soviet Union. … In the end, it was theater — the most mind-blowing theater ever created."
And surprisingly cheap theater at that, he noted. "By 1980, Americans spent more playing Space Invaders than they did on the space program."
The paradox is that "this product of scientists and engineers and their lean rationality should, like a great work of art, have the special ability to transcend the logic at its core, and to take us with it."
A lesser-known figure than Armstrong, an astronaut named Joseph Allen, put his finger on it: "With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the Moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may, in fact, be the most important reason."
It was, writes Smith, the reason "nobody foresaw: a unique opportunity to look at ourselves. How madly, perfectly human. For all Apollo's technological wonder, it was as primitive as a song. It meant nothing. And everything. … Was Apollo worth all the effort and expense? If it had been about the Moon, the answer would be no, but it wasn't. It was about the Earth. The answer is yes."
Looking at the Earth from deep in space. Who would have thought that something so simple could change the world? But it has, in ways we haven't yet grasped. We can now see our planet in our mind's eye, based on photos taken by the astronauts, 24 of them, the only humans who have left Earth orbit and traveled to Lunar orbit. The thought still makes me shiver when I look up at our celestial companion.
It changed our view of the world, it changed our view of ourselves, and it changed our view of the cosmos. It really was a giant leap for mankind — for our collective consciousness. We just haven't figured out what to do with it yet.
"The only thing I can't see in all this is a rationale for going back," Smith writes. "Unless we could find a way to take everyone."
Let's all go. Then, like Smith, we'll discover that "childish wonder, far from being an impediment to understanding Apollo, had been the whole point of it; that perhaps it should be the point of more things, more often."
We're all better off because Neil Armstrong, once upon a time, brought moonbeams home in a jar.