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.