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joe's essays new 7-24-2019
how it began

50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing


It is the 50th anniversary of man taking our first steps on the moon. This is a particularly important occasion to me.  I attribute this event to being the a turning point in my own life and perhaps a pivotal moment for this whole country.


When was the last time this country put its massive differences aside and got behind something powerful… even inspirational?  It has been a long time, hasn’t it? Way too long.


I was only six when it happened. But even all these years later I remember me and my elementary school classmates being herded into an adjoining room where we could share a television with another class.  We watched Walter Cronkite talk us through, step by step, as the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) left the command module Columbia and started their descent towards the moons surface.


We did not know it at the time. A lot of the details of this historic event were told later. But Neil Armstrong took manual control over the Eagle when the landing radar started to continuously glitch and go into alarm. While Buzz Aldrin worked the math and called out the ever decreasing amount of fuel they had left, Neil flew the LEM over a bolder field that covered their pre-determined landing area and set out horizontally above the moon’s surface to seek out a smoother safer place to land the ship.


We all watch Cronkite wring his hands nervously before finally “Houston, the Eagle has landed” crackled from the speaker and was broadcast to billions of viewers and listeners world wide.  We cheered. Even at that early age, it was not lost on us that before this very moment, the idea of men on the moon was something akin to pigs flying. It was a goal too big to even dream about. But then it really happened and the subtle underlying message that got through to many of us who were kids back then was nothing is impossible.  There is nothing that cannot be achieved if you apply enough hard work, time and imagination to it.


That idea has been with me my whole life thanks to Neil and Buzz and all the other astronauts who ever ventured outside the pull of earth to do seemingly impossible things after that.


That evening my family finished dinner early and gathered around the television at home.  Thats when we watched the staticky image of Neil climbing down the ladder of the LEM, pausing briefly on one of the ships landing pads, to say “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Then he stepped off and put his boot-print in the lunar surface dust. He was followed shortly there after by Buzz and together they seemed to immediately get to the job of planting the US flag on the moon and other duties. Me, my brother and sister sat there, glued to the spectacle.  It was amazing.  And for a moment… one brief symbolic short moment… everyone on the planet paused in wonder at what had been accomplished.


The voyage to the moon was not done on a whim.  This was decades of shaping the terror weapons of WWII into space exploration vessels.  This was twenty years of government calling on American industries best and brightest from all fields to contribute to the cause.  And the contributions were broad indeed.  Not just aerospace giants but small but just as important offerings that ensured the survival of the men who might one day take the voyage. Special food and drinks had to be developed that could be consumed in zero gravity. Special sealants, adhesives and plastics would have to be made to withstand the searing hot effects of a burning rocket engine. Of all things, Playtex, maker of fine women’s undergarments, got the job of creating the space suits that would protect the astronauts from the harsh conditions of space. It seemed like every state, even every community, had some small stake in the space program. And when the Eagle landed, we all sort of did too.


Many people do not realize that when John F Kennedy famously declared. “We choose to go to the moon!” In a campaign speech, the US had not even successfully put a man into orbit yet.  Kennedy set a goal to put a man on the moon in less than ten years… all this during massive race riots and the on going horrors of Vietnam tearing the country apart.  And somehow, some way, after amazing sacrifice and incredible technological advancements, in the summer of 1969 a massive rocket ship took three men to lunar orbit. And released a smaller ship that took two of those men to the moon’s surface.


I would be doing the world a disservice if I wrote about man reaching the moon and did not give some of the credit to Russia. In that cold war era, it was Russia’s early stunning successes in earth’s orbit that spawned America to take our own leap into the void. Like it or not, it was Russia’s successes that kicked America in the butt and made them unite around our own goals in space.  For better or worse, we have to acknowledge the Russian’s role in all this.  Remember when their influence actually made us do good things?


Let’s jump in the way-back machine into the late 1990s. I was working an evening shift at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I was a projectionist-show technician there and often ran the lights and sound support for live presentations.  We were hosting an event for a German aerospace company and all I was told was there were going to be speakers before we ran an IMAX movie The Dream is Alive about the early space shuttle missions. A couple of hours before the show, I was called by the box office to greet the speaker who was waiting at the front door to the theater. When I swung the doors open I about tripped over myself.


Standing there was none other than Neil Armstrong.


It’s a well known fact that after the initial world wide celebration of the first astronauts to reach the moon, Neil sort of dissolved out of sight. He did not want to be a celebrity and he certainly did not seek out the spotlight. He seemed content to let others become media darlings.  Neil kind of disappeared from the public eye. So truly the last person I expected to see at my theater’s door was Mr. Armstrong.


I quickly pulled myself together, greeted my all time favorite hero, and led him to a break space within the theater where we could wait for the audience to arrive and for the presentation to begin. I got Mr. Armstrong a mug of our traditionally bad but strong projection room coffee, and I got a once in a lifetime chance to have a chat, one to one, with a real historic figure.


I got the chance to ask the questions millions of people have wondered.  Why?  Why after achieving one of the pinnacle moments in modern history, did he avoid the potential fame and fortune that might have come afterwards?


Neil did not have to answer me. Hell, he could have easily had dismissed me from the room and I would have still felt honored to have offered him a cup of coffee.


But Neil smiled. Obviously I was not the first person to have asked him this question. He told me it would not have been right for him to have claimed any fame or fortune for something that took so many people to achieve. He said he just felt lucky to be the right guy at the right time with the right set of skills. But none of that would have had any value had it not been for all the people who came together to create all the little components that went into building that giant rocket and all the supporting programs.  The focus should not be on him. It should not be about one person.


How many people would have been humble enough to have recognized the big picture and their small role in it like this?   I feel like in today’s self promoting social media obsessed world this kind of humble just could not exist anymore. But how refreshing it was to experience it even in that moment more than decade ago.


Wouldn’t it be nice, today, if we had a leader who could see the necessity for a common cause to bring the entire country together in a way where we could all feel a piece of the prize when the goal might be accomplished?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all be reminded for just a moment that we’re all more alike than we are different.


50 years ago on this day, that’s exactly what happened.