Apollo 11 at 45: Can our past save our future?

July 16, 2014

The place was a generic piece of concrete known only as launch pad 39A, the date was July 16, 1969, and the time was 9:32 a.m. EDT.

At that moment, the valves opened, liquid oxygen and kerosene started to mix, and 7.6 million lbs of thrust began separating man made machine from its Earthly tethers.

Thrust so powerful, fire so roaring, that the front row seats to that history were positioned 3 miles away to protect those witnesses from what even today is still the most powerful machine man has ever built.

By 9:45 am, that most magnificent of a machine had shed over 95 percent of its weight, was 116 miles above terra firma and traveling at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour.

45 years ago today, the three mortal men of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins assumed their immortal place in the annals of human history, carrying with them the dreams of a slain President, the prayers of a nation and the awe of an entire planet.

Four days later the Eagle landed and tens of millions the world over found time suspended as they immersed themselves in Armstrong’s giant leap.

I was just a lanky kid growing up on a Kansas farm at the time.  And while by geographical standards I may have been in the middle of nowhere over 1300 miles away from that launch pad, in my heart and with all of my being I was right there at the Cape as the images appeared on the brand new RCA color console in the living room.  (Dad never admitted it but I swear he bought it just for the moon shot.)

Today, I’m but a middle aged man with all that comes with it; A job, a mortgage, car payments, a constant “to do” list and a yard that seems in perpetual need of mowing.

Yet come this time each July, I get to be that big eared, bug eyed kid once again sitting in front of that 25” diagonal technological miracle of its time wishing my own Revell Saturn V looked as good as the models Walter and the experts were using.

And while I fully embrace the technology of today, (especially the internet that lets me watch again those grainy broadcasts and re-live those memories clearer than ever), I am still in awe of that summer of ’69.

It had been less than 7 years since President Kennedy had put the world on notice with his: “… 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,..”

With nothing but slide rules, pencils and a collection of brain power perhaps never again to be replicated this nation didn’t just meet Kennedy’s challenge, we soared right passed it.

And then we forgot.

We forgot so completely the meaning behind Kennedy’s challenge that as I write this column a United States astronaut must hitch a ride with the Russians to enter the very same space America once ruled.

Which begs the question:  What will be written of us 45 years hence?

Will it be how we re-organized and re-measured the best of our energies and skills or how we traded the hard of yesterday for the easy of today?

Will it be that this was the time of commitment restored or the beginning of our end?

I know what I wish, yet I fear what will be.

Publisher’s Note:  A version of this column first appeared in the July 16th, 2014 print edition of the Joplin Globe.

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