Melanie Heuiser Hill ampersand


Melanie Heuiser Hill

Melanie Heuiser Hill ampersand


Melanie Heuiser Hill

The Moon & Me

I was a born a week after the moon land­ing in 1969. Some­how, in fam­i­ly sto­ry­telling and conversation—and lat­er, in my education—I came to under­stand that my birth­day was spe­cial. That I myself was…well, special…simply for hav­ing been born dur­ing such a his­toric week.

In school, we watched a reel of the icon­ic footage of Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I sat in my chair aglow, pon­der­ing if I should let my teacher and my peers know the won­der of my birth dur­ing this time. When I saw pic­tures of that stiff Amer­i­can flag plant­ed on the moon’s sur­face, I felt a kind of kin­ship with it. Even today, when I look up at the moon I smile, mar­veling at our connection.

Now that we’re at the fifti­eth anniver­sary of this aus­pi­cious time, I’m real­iz­ing I have spent my life with a naïve and high­ly roman­ti­cized ver­sion of the sto­ry that got us to the moon. It’s had the grand scope and spir­it of Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s call to action in his Moon Speech at Rice Uni­ver­si­ty in Sep­tem­ber 1962. With­out any of the actu­al details of how it came to pass, as it turns out.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the oth­er things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to orga­nize and mea­sure the best of our ener­gies and skills, because that chal­lenge is one that we are will­ing to accept, one we are unwill­ing to post­pone, and one which we intend to win, and the oth­ers, too.”

Our 1969 trip to the moon, for me, has always been about that orga­niz­ing and mea­sur­ing of the best of our ener­gies and skills to do the Hard Thing. This great explo­ration of a new fron­tier, this com­ing togeth­er to do the momen­tous and amaz­ing thing of send­ing peo­ple to the moon and hav­ing them walk on it—what a hard and thrilling thing! I feel like I grew up under JFK’s call, even though he posit­ed the nation­al goal years before I exist­ed. In my fam­i­ly we talked about space explo­ration with won­der and reverence—it was this great adven­ture, an amaz­ing feat of sci­ence and human inge­nu­ity, an astound­ing achieve­ment. The moon land­ing was a big part of my child­hood. I felt “touched by it,” as sil­ly and hubris­tic as that sounds.

So I’ve been quite excit­ed about all the media cov­er­age as we’ve approached the anniver­sary. In print, tele­vi­sion, and radio, I’ve revis­it­ed the details of those days when I was wait­ing to be born. And it’s been…surprisingly dif­fi­cult. The PBS series, Chas­ing The Moon, in par­tic­u­lar, was challenging.

Of course I knew about the “space race” with Rus­sia, but I’d always thought of this race as some­thing like a play­ground race to the swings—not as a proxy for war. I had no idea that some of the tech­nol­o­gy so quick­ly devel­oped in this “race” was devel­oped by Nazi sci­en­tists. And although I under­stood from a young age that 1969 was a trou­bled year that fol­lowed the extreme­ly trou­bled year of 1968, I did not know the ugly pol­i­tics around civ­il rights that became tan­gled in our space explo­ration. What’s more, I’d total­ly for­got­ten (or ignored) the trag­ic deaths that occurred on our way to launch­ing Apol­lo 11. I sat and watched this ter­rif­ic doc­u­men­tary on PBS and squirmed. It was so much messier than I knew…. Where was the won­der, the call to adven­ture? Was it too much to hope for a new call to action—a call to come togeth­er and do some­thing amazing—here in the 21stcen­tu­ry?

And then the New York Times pulled through with this won­der­ful arti­cle about writ­ing the lede for the front-page cov­er­age of the moon land­ing on July 21st, 1969. I went and looked up the whole arti­cle on the Times­Ma­chine. My sense of won­der and adven­ture was restored. I’m just less naïve and a bit smarter about it all now.

As I rapid­ly approach the ripe old age of fifty, I won­der if I’ve thought of this his­toric event pri­mar­i­ly as a writer. (More heav­i­ly lean­ing on poet­ry than jour­nal­ism, per­haps.) Good­ness knows the his­toric con­text and facts need to be put before us again and again—I’m grate­ful for the pro­duc­tions teth­er­ing me back to all of the his­to­ry of this momen­tous event. But I’m also grate­ful for the poet­ics spo­ken and writ­ten dur­ing that time. And for the phrase “Sea of Tran­quil­i­ty,” (or Mare Tran­quil­li­tatisas as it is known in Latin—swoon!) the name of the loca­tion where Apol­lo 11 land­ed. I’m grate­ful for the com­bined sto­ry of my birth and the moon land­ing told to me by my parents—making it seem as if it was all one marvel—and for the sense of won­der and adven­ture and pur­pose I absorbed from the story.

I’m a writer—words like Pres­i­dent Nixon’s con­grat­u­la­tions to the astro­nauts speak to me.

Because of what you have done, the heav­ens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tran­quil­i­ty it requires us to redou­ble our efforts to bring peace and tran­quil­i­ty to the earth.”

Fifty years on, we live in a time where we could use some redou­bling of our efforts to bring peace and tran­quil­i­ty to the earth….

Maybe I’ll make a moon birth­day cake this year.

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