Pondering Apollo 11, 40 years later
Some time in 1969 or 1970 — I was about five years old — my maternal grandparents paid a visit to our small 2-floor apartment, where we lived above my aunt and uncle and three cousins.
Naturally (I was only five after all!), I don't remember a great deal about that visit — in truth, since Grandpa Hart died in 1975, I don't remember all that much about him at all, at least not memories uncontaminated by the memories and stories of others.
He was a small, compact man (though of course he did not then seem small to me; nor would he now, come to think of it, since he was probably an inch or so taller than I am as an adult), with a thinning but full head of hair and a small, neat mustache.
Family lore has it that he was a man burdoned with a great deal of anger, of rage and of disappointment in himself. An American child of Finnish immigrants, socialists, he had nevertheless bought fully into the American Dream and, apparently, he went to his grave a disappointment to himself. He had never made a million dollars.
Probably not exactly as shown.
Nevertheless, he was no disappointment to me. Far from it. In his younger days he had been an acrobat and an escape artist. He had been a professional magician and hypnotist (he had been good friends with Harry Blackstone!). I thought he was, as I might have said today, cool. And he seemed to take great pleasure in pulling a coin from my ear, performing card tricks or — best of all! — in making objects vanish or appear from nothing more than a blanket draped across his forearm.
One day during that visit, what he pulled from that blanket was (or so I believed) an exact duplicate of what was then my favourite toy, an astronaut doll (I'd never heard the term action figure in those days), quite possibly the same model that pictured at left.
I was properly impressed as I held the figure in my hands. I examined it closely and could see no obvious differences between this doll and my doll. Which, I soon discovered, had mysteriously disappeared (you can probably guess where this is going).
It was only some days after my grandparents had left — gone home to Detroit — that I gave up the search. I think I first believed the "original" doll was simply and finally lost; I don't remember when it was I realized, or perhaps had it explained to me, that Grampa didn't really create something out of nothing beneath that blanket, but that it was only a trick.
Grampa and Grandma retired to Sudbury during my 10th year, where we now also lived. Grampa then began to teach me magic, only a few simple illusions, before he died in his sleep, less than a year following his retirement.
But he had, despite the apparent unhappiness that had dogged his life, left a legacy of mystery and love in the heart of at least one of his grandchildren — and whether he appreciated it or not, he had been born only a scant three or so years after the world's very first recorded powered flight and died three years after the last time any human being has set foot upon the surface of any other world but our own.
I am fairly certain I watched the first moon-landing when it happened, but I can't be certain of it. I know I remember watching one of them, but so many years later, who knows which one leaves a vague, original impression in my mind's cluttered archives?
At any rate, I was four and a half years old when, a mere 66 years</a> after the Wright Brothers managed humanity's very first powered flight (not so much longer between Kitty Hawk and Tranquility Base than there is between the moon and now, is there?) and I obviously didn't then have the historical perspective to understand just how momentous an event — in fact, a series of events — it was that I was privileged to witness.
Yes, "momentous". In the space of 66 years, we changed from a species that took its first, fumbling leaps into the air, to one that had set foot on another world.
I ask you to take a moment and simply think about that accomplishment, that triumph of imagination, of courage, of will.
66 years! 66 years from Kitty Hawk to Luna! If we can accomplish that in so short a time, what can't we manage if only we put our minds to it!
That we have not been back there for 35 years, is sad; if we never go back, it will be a tragedy. If we block our collective vision so that low-Earth orbit is as high as we can aspire to, we will eventually leave that space as well, and sooner or later, a great rock will fall from the sky, or some other disaster will put an end to our species; not only our past will be erased, but every possible future will gone as well.
We might as well never have been at all. In a million years, our arts and culture, our loves and hates, will have been erased from the surface of the Earth, our only memorial, the slowly-eroding footprints left upon the Lunar surface.
Even 20 years ago, I thought there was a realistic possibility that I might personally live long enough to, in my dotage, set foot upon the surface of Mars as a paying passenger, a tourist. I wasn't naive enough to think there was a good chance I would have the opportunity, but I thought it significantly better than zero.
Barring some completely unexpect developments — either in space travel or some kind of life-extension technology — I now believe the odds that I will have a chance to even set foot upon the moon is very close to zero. Time marches on and hurries us along with it.
In another 40 years I will be 84 and though we are a long-lived bunch (my maternal grand-father notwithstanding), I don't expect regular flights from here to there between then and now. We could do it, of course — Apollo proved we can do just about anything, at least to my satisfaction — but I don't expect any nation to bring the necessary resources to bear, nor that private industry will find a sufficient source of potential (short-term) profit to be able to command the necessary investment.
And yet. And yet ...
Despite my admitedly elegiac tone, and despite signs that NASA will not getting the necessary funding for the (sort of) planned return in 2020, I take some comfort in a couple of facts worth keeping in mind.
First, that history takes its own course and its own time. It took Europeans hundreds of years to fully conquer North America. I use the analogy not because I expect there to be native Martians which we will then exterminate, or try to, but to remind myself simply that it took a long time to get from Columbus' first contact in 1492 to the world we know today.
It is easy to forget, from the eternal now just how many small steps it takes to create history, how many tentative missions, how many failures, it took to get from there to here.
It may not be the Americans or Russians, or even the Chinese or Brazilians. In my heart of hearts I'd like the first human on Mars to sport a maple leaf on her shoulder, but in my mind of minds I imagine it will be some sort of international project — or else many projects, some private, some state-sponsored, slowly moving outward from this "small blue dot", spreading veriditas from our blooming blue world to her silent sisters.
So. Here's to 1969, and to the men and women who even now circle above our heads and so keep our future alive.
Earthrise, as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972.
Cross-posted from Edifice Rex Online.