Fifty years ago today, the surface of the Moon was still quiet.
The Eagle had not yet landed. The world was not yet watching the arrival of three men in hope and wonder and anxiety. Mankind’s first words on an alien surface had not yet been spoken – and screwed up ever so slightly. (Sorry, Neil.)
So much had been planned. So much had been prepared. But nothing was certain. Astronauts had been lost before. It could happen again.
Anything could be in the future. Wonder. Disaster. Chaos.
Anything at all.
This column was born from a slight mental glitch.
I am a space geek going way back. And so, like all the other fans of the final frontier, I’ve been excited about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. By any standard, the date of July 20, 1969 deserves to stand out in human history.
Which is why I have no excuse for momentarily remembering it as June 20 when I started to plan my column.
All right, I’m laughing, too. Brain cells do amazing things – such as the first President Bush declaring September 7 as the “day of infamy” or President Obama momentarily gifting the U.S. with 57 states – so at the very least, I’m in illustrious company.
But the more I thought about it, the more the idea intrigued me. And not just because I was up against a deadline again.
Consider, for a moment, the world of 1969.
A lot had been happening in this country. And unless you were a New York Mets fan, most of it didn’t feel like champagne and roses. John Lennon may have been singing “Give Peace a Chance,” but for the first half of the year, the headlines didn’t seem to hold much of it. War in Vietnam. Protests. Riots. Even a major oil spill and a spring training boycott.
Sure, preparation for the moon mission was there, too. But unless you were part of the not-so-small army laying the groundwork, it was probably one more item among many, and not an especially loud one. Not yet.
Not with about a month left to go.
Not with crisis so loud and the future not yet known.
We’re good at focusing on crisis. It’s one of the things that’s helped us survive as a species. But when we have the ability to be aware of crisis across the country – heck, around the world – it gets overwhelming. Too many alarms, all of them screaming “NOW!”
It’s easy to drown. Easier to surrender.
And easiest of all to forget that even at our worst, we’re still capable of our best.
It doesn’t just happen, any more than winning lottery tickets just happen to show up in our mail box. It takes work and hope and maybe even a little craziness. Just enough crazy to decide that what we do can matter, that a little light can be kindled in the smoke.
That we can do something that matters.
Apollo 11 was the culmination of seven years of effort (and built on what had come before). Right down to the end, nothing was certain. President Nixon had a speech in his pocket in case of fatal disaster. The Eagle overshot the intended landing site, forcing Armstrong to guide the craft to safety and touch down with 23 seconds of fuel left. So much could have happened.
But what did happen captured the eyes of the world.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”
What are we a month away from now, maybe?
What future could we be building among the chaos of today if we refuse to quit? To stop hoping?
I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to it.
Especially if it includes one more column finished on deadline for this space case.