Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Man and The Moon's First Date

Armstrong, Aldrin and that other dude. Apollo 11's faithful crew.

40 years ago today, Michael Collins watched two of his crew mates do the coolest thing imaginable. You don’t really hear much about Collins, but I imagine that he must be a real pro since he’s never gone to the press to complain about what might be the biggest cosmic short change since the day we discovered that Earth was located in the boondocks with absolutely nobody nearby to hang out with.

Space and space exploration has always been an interest of mine. In 3rd grade I did a report on the constellation Orion. I don’t remember why I chose it, but it probably had something to do with it being one of the brightest and most recognizable. My mom, having been trained in the theater arts and being young and energetic at the time, was always up for helping my school projects make my peers’ look like crap. My dioramas often included a battery operated element or required all the lights in the classroom to be extinguished to observe its full effect. I nearly always chose odd books to make my reports on allowing my dioramas or presentation to incorporate aliens, werewolves or magical talking animals. And my Orion poster presentation called for a night shoot, of course. Mom and I, at 2am, in some desolate Texas field, long exposures and sleeping in the next morning. But, the moment I knew I wasn’t going to be a scientist was in February of 1986, when I chose sleep over going out with mom in the middle of the night to photograph Halley’s comet. I think I actually told her that I’d catch it next time around.

That's a scabbard, not a wiener, sicko.

While riding in the car with my mother one day around this time, I declared that man had in fact landed on Mars. I’d seen the pictures. They looked real to me. The whole idea of the vastness of space and distance between Earth and our neighbors hadn’t quite sunk in yet. Well, that and I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of actually reading the accompanying text next to the incomprehensibly beautiful photographs sent back by Viking I and II in 1976. But, for a few days, I thought man had been to Mars and let me tell you – I remember that feeling pretty awesome.

Whatever memory of actual moon landing footage I have seen over the years has been overshadowed by Fred Savages character in Wonder Years watching it. I couldn’t find the clip on YouTube and in some ways that makes me doubt my own memory which is a huge problem in itself. But I can hear Daniel Stern saying something bittersweet and thoughtful over the scratchy moon sounds from the Arnold’s black and white TV, the bluish light filling the living room, Mr. Arnold’s face showing just the smallest trace of happiness.

My mom, who was 16 at the time, recalls it differently:

It was on TV. It was all ghosts and shadows. I remember not caring any
more. We had lost my baby sitters husband in Vietnam, Bobby , Jack,
Martin and so many I have forgotten that year were gone. I looked and
hoped for a better world. It was a hot night. I went for walk and looked
at the stars in the only way that mattered, with my own eyes.

I watched a few "moon" specials on NatGeo this weekend and most of them only glance over the ickier things that were happening in America (and in the space program) at that time. When seminal anniversaries like these are commemorated, we tend to ignore anything that would complicate our memory. Check out this article about the darker side of returning to Earth after going where no man has gone before. It's not all press conferences and bragging rights, sadly.

But, if you're in Philly tomorrow night you can catch Buzz Aldrin talk about how cool being an astronaut was at the Free Library at 7:30pm. I would totally go with you, but I have to see what will most likely be a terrible romantic comedy instead. Once again, my priorities are way out of whack. And if I don't live to be 84 when Halley comes around again, I'm gonna be so pissed at the decision-making of my 9 year old self.