Aug 262012

We didn’t sleep much that night on the beach, my brother, my cousin and I – and several thousand other people. We kept staring across Indian River at that gleaming needle of white on the Atlantic shoreline of the Kennedy Space Center, a rocket bathed in the brilliant glare of searchlights that surrounded the launch pad. After hitting the Saturn 5, the light spanned out into the sky as an intense cone of white that could be seen for miles during the night.

Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11. (Credit: NASA)

A rocket. This was the stuff of science fiction, of cheesy yet amazing movies and who knows how many books that I read leading up to this morning. This was real, yet looked just as I saw the rocket ships in my mind’s eye when reading those books. Only better.

The three of us drove down from Detroit to see the launch, a dash down I-75 to witness history. After dawn, the crowd thickened. We found a spot near the water’s edge and kept our fingers crossed that there would be no delays, no scrubs. Not that morning. We were reaching for the Moon, and nothing would stop us from grabbing it.

We were reaching for the Moon. For most of the ’60s that meant Americans. But in December of 1968, that started to change. It was a tumultuous, angry year, but when Apollo 8 made our first trip to the Moon, even if only to orbit it, the world paused and watched. We were reaching for the Moon, and this time, unplanned, “we” meant the people of Earth. And there it was , the Moon’s surface skimming by so fast and so close on our TV screens we wanted to reach out and touch it.

On that morning in July 1969, we were about to do just that. The world watched, again on TV, but we were there on the beach, witnessing it live. We saw the flash of engine ignition, and then much of the rocket disappeared in steam and smoke. The top of the rocket remained visible, but for a moment it seemed to sway sideways. In an instant, fear that slumbered all morning in my gut jerked awake.. Had the engines failed to lift the gigantic rocket? It was only an illusion when the support structure arms swung away from the Saturn 5, disconnecting the giant rocket’s last tenuous bonds to Earth.

The sound reached us seconds later as the rocket gathered speed, punched through a low hanging cloud and left a smoke ring behind and a thick column of billowing, white exhaust as it rumbled and roared for altitude to leave the sky behind.

We were reaching for the Moon, and this time we would grab it. Three men would reach the Moon, and two of them, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would leave their footprints in the gray dust as ambassadors representing all the people of Earth.

Armstrong’s death yesterday brought it all back, the excitement, the thrills, the fears. The years I spent growing up in the ’60s were punctuated by the space program and the race for the Moon. I dragged my feet before going to school in the morning of launches, hoping to catch lift-off before walking the half-block to my grade school. My mom kept me on time, but barely. Yet there were always countdown delays in the early days. I’d rush home for lunch and instead of Soupy Sales, those slender rockets of the first Mercury flights and later Gemini were still on the TV screen, with someone in launch control droning out the final seconds of the countdown.

The nation and the world were in an upheaval of events and emotions during that decade over wars, protests and assassinations. Even our reach for the Moon began as a drive to seize the military high ground of space, to beat the Russians. Yet racing for the Moon seemed to evolve into something great and noble, despite its roots. Maybe I needed something noble. Detroit had burned only two years earlier. I stood in the backyard and watched the thick black smoke rise into the sky but no farther as it settled over the city.

I needed something noble. So did the country. So did the world.

The astronauts were my rock stars growing up, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury 7, and the expanding astronaut corps for Gemini and Apollo including Armstrong and Aldrin. Armstrong seemed more in the mold of Glen rather than the cocky pilots of Shepard or Grissom. Armstrong was naturally shy. He was among the first civilian astronauts, though he was a Navy pilot in Korea. He was Everyman. But boy could he fly. After Korea, he spent years as a civilian test pilot, flying the X-1B, the X-15 and more. As an astronaut, he commanded the Gemini mission for the first manned docking in space. He escaped death flying a gangly and unruly test vehicle meant to practice lunar landings when it instead careened out of control. He ejected at the last second. Armstrong probably saved the Apollo 11 mission when he took over controls of the real lunar lander to guide it away from a boulder field for a safe landing on the Moon with only seconds of fuel left.

The three of us spent a little more time in Florida, then drove back to Detroit in 24 hours straight, getting there just in time to watch the coverage of the landing. Armstrong and Aldrin were supposed to get some sleep first to rest up for their walk on the Moon, but most everyone thought that was a stupid idea. They just landed on the Moon! Now they’re supposed to take a nap?

Still it took some time before they ventured out. The TV network anchors talked us through the events. At least one network, maybe others, had someone dress up in a space suit to act out what was happening on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong, climbing down from the ladder to make his first “small step” onto the lunar surface.

Then with a crackle and a blur, a new image appeared. The networks superimposed a message on it that they had never put up before. “Live from the Moon.” There was Armstrong, climbing down, standing at the edge, describing the dust he saw around the landing pad, and finally took his one small step for a man, and humanity back on Earth took one giant leap of celebration.

Armstrong stepped into history, but he never welcomed the glare of public spotlight that came with it. He left NASA, spent a few years teaching engineering in his home sate of Ohio, then retired to mostly private life. He did, however, publicly bemoan our abandoning any return to the Moon or to go on, as President Kennedy exhorted us, to “do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

What happened to doing those other things? Were they too hard? Too expensive? Did we really just become too bored?

A few days before Armstrong’s death, the Mars rover Curiosity took its first tentative drive across the red dust, taking pictures of the tracks it left behind. It was a small drive for a robot, and certainly no giant leap for robotic kind. I imagine many of us who were on the beach in July 1969 are wondering when we will see the first human footprints on Mars. It seems like many who only know the Moon landing as history are wondering the same.

In November 2010 during a speech for the Science & Technology Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, Armstrong offered to command a mission to Mars if he was ever asked. At the age of 80, I don’t think he expected to get that call. But someone will.

There is a renewed and growing interest to reach beyond the sky. We don’t know when we’ll take that next step, but I believe the first person to walk on Mars is now walking on Earth, perhaps taking his or her own first small step toward destiny.

  2 Responses to “Reflections from a July morning on a Florida beach, 1969”

  1. It was a very special time to watch us take our first steps beyond Earth. I expect Armstrong and the rest of those early astronauts expected us to keep going and to be on Mars well before know. We dreamed great things back then.

  2. Thanks, Tom, for sharing some private moments of a public yearning to grow beyond ourselves this man and his mission represented.

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