Yes, There Really Is a Man-In-The-Moon

On summer Sundays in Minnesota, the parks and lakes dotting the Twin Cities crawl with couples and families, all soaking up 85-degree heat much as chipmunks store nuts for the coming winter. But on one remarkable Sunday in July, forty years and two generations ago, my family sat together in the relative cool of our basement family room. We were there to witness a transcendent moment, as were some 530-million people world-wide.

Holding two young daughters, we saw a fuzzy impossibility flicker across our television. And listened to an iconic newsman, whose word had come to be regarded as the “truth,” confirm that a man had landed on the Moon. That afternoon, Walter Cronkite described what was arguably mankind’s greatest technical achievement, accomplished barely eight years after President John F. Kennedy declared “…..this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

The date was July 20, 1969, six years after Cronkite carried out a heartbreaking task: telling a nation that it’s President, architect of that grand moment which he would not live to see, had been shot dead. That was 1963, and as Camelot and a country buckled, Cronkite swallowed hard, unable to even look into the camera. With the landing of Eagle, his composure again frayed, but this was a very different moment. Cronkite grinned at the world, like a giddy schoolboy, and framed our wonder: “Oh, geez,” then a gush of nervous laughter, then “Oh, boy. Whew! Oh, boy.”

After walking and working on the Moon’s surface for 2½ hours, Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin reunited with Michael Cooper and Columbia; and, on July 24 their capsule splashed down some 812 miles southwest of Hawaii, paying off Kennedy’s dream of “…returning (man) safely to Earth.” What had seemed impossible had been transformed into something “so easy.”

Today I remember the Apollo 11 astronauts, supported by those at NASA, who crossed the last, great physical barrier of discovery – not with bluster or bravado, but with simple words: “The Eagle has landed,” and “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and even “Whoopie!” I recall Aldrin’s hope, before his walk on the Moon: “I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

And again I imagine three fragile men, who trusted other fragile men as they flew 953,054 miles using nascent technology with less computing muscle than a cell phone, sharing an odyssey of colossal uncertainty. As a British scientist said, “…(Apollo 11) would be inconceivable in the risk-averse world of today.” I hope that is not true, for beyond technology, beyond reestablishing America in the early “space race,” Apollo 11 was an ode to vision, innovation, leadership, determination and courage.

Apollo 11 asked more of man than seemed possible: to reach for the unthinkable, to push past boundaries of imagination and nerve, to find and define a new world. Forty years later, we once again need bold vision, innovation, leadership, determination and courage. Not bluster, not bravado – just a “few (more) small steps for man…” Apollo 11 is an epic story worth re-telling, to those born after Eagle landed, and those who cannot see past the trials of today.

 Larry Cassidy (7/20/2009)

Edited 8/25/2012

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