Richard Nixon said it was the “greatest week in the history of the world since the creation.” My parents and my sister and I sat in our den (there were dens then) and watched the entire thing in grainy flickering black and white on our big console color TV. I took a hundred 35mm black and white photos of the television screen. We listened in awe as Walter Cronkite gushed and goshed, and our own North Dakotan Eric Sevareid intoned one insight after another about the significance of humanity breaking free of the earth’s gravity and traveling for the first time to another celestial sphere.
I thank God that I was alive when it happened. It was surely the greatest human achievement in my lifetime, one of the handful of greatest moments since we crawled out of the sea and found a way to stand upright.
Now we don’t even have a rocket capable of putting a person into space. We have to beg rides from the Russians. Think of the political leverage that gives them, no matter how cash starved they are. We not only don’t seem to care that the Chinese are going to be next on the moon, but most Americans are actually unaware that that Sputnik-like moment is coming, sometime in the next decade. As with so many things America does, we accomplished it and then got bored and moved on. If the moon landings of 1969-1972 represent one of the greatest single moments in human history, the aftermath—been there, done that, bought the Tang and the Velcro—is one of the saddest indications of America’s turn away from the Enlightenment. We have the national attention span of a walnut. The Apollo moon landings should have been the beginning. Instead, they were the end.
It seems so long ago now. The space shuttle was uninspiring. Two of them came apart above our skies. Our unmanned probes are doing fabulous work all across the solar system—and beyond. But there is no James Cook now, no Meriwether Lewis, no John Wesley Powell, no Charles Lindbergh, no Sir Edmund Hillary, no Thor Heyerdahl, no John Glenn, no Neil Armstrong, no Yuri Gagarin.
How did we descend from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, from Alan Shepard to LeBron James?
If you try to make a list of the greatest achievements in human history, the Panama Canal seems pretty impressive until you compare it to landing humans safely on the moon and bringing them home again. In the long run, the Panama Canal has done more for human prosperity, but it has done far less for the human spirit.
The Panama Canal and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the California Water Project and the Empire State Building are magnificent achievements, but they are local and infrastructural. But leaving the home planet for the first time to ease a capsule down gently on another celestial orb, even one so close as the Moon, belongs to a wholly different category of human aspiration and achievement. It has the feel of a graduation ceremony, the opening of a new epoch in human history. It’s a rite of passage that any technological civilization must eventually reach. We could easily have failed in 1969. If the Eagle had crashed onto the Sea of Tranquility, if the ascent rocket had failed to fire and left Aldrin and Armstrong stranded on the Moon, if the navigation had been imprecise and Apollo 11 had sailed past the Moon into a helpless orbit of the Sun, the whole enterprise might have just collapsed. And all the critics who said we should have been feeding and housing the poor, or finding an honorable way to end the War in Vietnam would have celebrated through their tears.
It’s not just that fact that we did it—six times, 12 astronauts walking the surface of the Moon—but that we were able to do it. If you think of the number of things that could have gone wrong in July 1969, the number of things that had to go right, it staggers the imagination. It’s not so much about the actual achievement—it is about the boldness, the cultural confidence, the vision, the devotion to Newtonian science, the faith in the capacity of engineering, the inventiveness (most of the technologies to land on the moon did not exist when JFK said we would within the decade), the willingness to take extremely expensive risks, the free man’s willingness to do something unbelievably dangerous on public display, the belief in progress, the sense that there is nothing humans cannot accomplish if they focus their mighty energies on it, the wild exuberance of it…. That was America. That was America.
Where should we rank the Moon landings on our list of humankind’s greatest moments?
There was of course the original Promethean moment—the stealing of fire from the gods and teaching humans how to use it. Next time you are in the woods try to start a fire without a Bic lighter, a match, or flint and steel. Phosphorescent matches were invented during Jefferson’s lifetime. He was, naturally, a big fan and he sang their praises to all of his correspondents. I’ve got some camping matches that would light a candle in a monsoon. When in doubt, just douse wet wood with a can of charcoal lighter and you are going to be just fine. Fire=meat=heat=gunpowder=steam=internal combustion=rocket=Moon. That’s why Norman Mailer titled his book about the Apollo 11 mission Of a Fire on the Moon.
And the alphabet. It was the lovely rational Greeks simplifying earlier systems used by the Phoenicians. Twenty-six abstract squiggles, each embodying part of a sound, and with that breathtakingly small number of symbols we can say absolutely anything we want to say. Think of the number of sentences that have been written in the Greek-Roman-English alphabet alone, trillions, and yet I can now write a sentence that I am certain has never been written before, not once: “Neil Armstrong objected to Marilyn Monroe’s films the way a hunter objects to a lapdog.” Right there. Unique in the history of the world. According to Google’s count, so far since the Guttenberg Revolution (1450-2019) there have been published 129,864,880 separate titles. Most of them recently. In fact, far more than one million books are published in America each year, and—listen to this—one million are self-published. Oh God help us.
The significance of alphabets and writing cannot be exaggerated. The distinguished author of Homo Deus, Yuval Harari says that any one human can only keep in her or his mind just over two generations of family history. I know myself (approximately). I can say a good deal about my parents, both of whom are now dead. I can speak of 2 ½ of my grandparents with some limited knowledge. And about my great grandparents I can tell you nothing but a sentence or two gleaned from genealogical databases. Try it yourself. How much can oral history embrace and perpetuate? Thanks to those ingenious Greeks, I can know the life of Solon or Julius Caesar better than I know the life of my grandparents. Thanks to the Greeks, I can read any of 25 new books on the Apollo 11 Moon landings, including Douglas Brinkley’s fascinating American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. There is a reason that English has come to dominate the world’s languages, and it is not just Anglo-American power. We have the most efficient alphabet in the world. Look at a Chinese keyboard or try to sort through the symbology of Arabic or Persian. We owe the Greeks more than we can ever know. Yes, we should bail them out again, even though they are fiscally irresponsible. What would we be without them.?
Add to this the domestication of animals—the goat, the pig, the sheep, the cow, the dog, the horse, and (depending on who you ask) the cat. We are so far beyond the horse now that we can no longer appreciate what it once meant to humanity. We still use the term horsepower (a 440 horse Chrysler V8 engine) to measure the pulling power of machines. If you want to get a sense of what the horse represented to a pedestrian people, read any account of the Plains Indians (the Lakota, Cheyenne, the Nez Perce, the Crow, the Arapahoe, the Commanche, the Mandan). When Spanish horses got away from their corrals in New Mexico and began to drift north, plains Indians regarded them as a gift from the gods. They got over their fear of this majestic and violent quadruped instantly, and took to the horse the way we took to the car in the 1920s. Within a generation the horse had revolutionized their lifeways. It had revolutionized the American West. This may sound a little stereotypy, but there is nothing more purely inspiring than seeing a young Native American ride bareback at breakneck speed on an Indian pony. There was a fit there—some deeper cosmic harmony that could never have been predicted, and it continues today in a diminished form I n Indian country.
Personally, I’d like to make the case for two other giant leaps for mankind. You may or may not agree. One is the clear plastic Ziploc bag, invented in 1968. As far as I am concerned, it’s not BC and AD, its BZB and PZB. The other is the Ginsu Knife, also a product of the 1960s. I know of no other slicing instrument that can cut through the axel of a car and then slice a perfect tomato.
There is something about humankind. Elephants are highly intelligent but they don’t build skyscrapers, discover penicillin, or send Captain Cook to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. The plains buffalo is one of the most majestic of creatures, but it doesn’t gaze at the rings of Saturn through a telescope or keep up with its kin at the Bronx Zoo via FaceTime. We are the only creature that works so hard to break through the natural boundaries that were set for us in the Creation. Freud says we have become a prosthetic god in the ways we extend and multiply our puny bipedal power base: microscopes, telescopes, steam engines, elevators, airplanes, drilling rigs, bulldozers. We seem to be the only creature that knows it has to die—can that be true?—and apparently that propels us to chafe against the chain link fence of our mortality. We are restless as giraffes are not. Walt Whitman wrote, “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them long and long.They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…” Fair enough, but deer and hippopotami do not paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they do not compose the Brandenburg Concertos, they do not write Hamlet, they do not discover the smallpox vaccine, they do not sculpt Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, they do not write Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Whatever it is about us, I want that. Now if only we could distinguish all that is great in our unbelievable ingenuity from all that is dark and destructive in the same genius.
The rockets that took us into space were actually designed to lob ICBM missiles at Russian cities and military installations. 1969 was the year of Apollo 11 but it was also the year of the Battle of Hamburger Hill in Vietnam, when US forces flew 272 missions thorugh a ten day battle to take a hill of no strategic importance, 72 Americans dead, 372 wounded, and who knows how many North Vietnamese and Viet Cong dead or maimed.
I’m glad for one brief shining moment we turned those ICBM swords into ploughshares, and sang the song of Aristarchus of Samos, Copernicus, Galileo, da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Robert Goddard.
When I look back on July 21, 1969, I feel a wave of deep nostalgia, and then a wave of unbridled pride that humans did this and, frankly, that Americans did this, and then I feel a wave of deep sadness and loss.