[This Commentary originally appeared in the July 20, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
From a camera perched atop a tall skinny structure of skeletal steel, you look down upon the narrow tubular body of mostly white with hints of black. The “steam” of super cooled liquid oxygen gushes from various vents along the surface of the slender cylinder. You view the not-so-crisp TV picture in your living room, anxiously awaiting the final moment.
“T-minus 20 seconds and counting…,” says a tin can voice over a PA system not much better than those found in your elementary school.
T-minus 15 seconds and counting, guidance control is internal.
9, ignition sequence starts,
Liftoff. Liftoff of Apollo 11. Thirty-two minutes past the hour…
I don’t know if I’ll ever forget that particular narrative. A full-fledged member of the space generation, I avidly followed the promise of the final frontier from before I can remember. A joy of anticipation gushed through my newly nine-year-old body as I watched the towering Saturn V rocket slowly ascend into the blue sky and the thrill of beyond. Even today, when I see a video-tape of that launch, I feel the same rush of naïve excitement, the emotion indelibly marked inside my soul.
It behooves me why the liftoff has a much greater impact on me than the actual moon walk. Perhaps it represents that exhilaration and youthful demeanor that accompanies the inauguration of any new endeavor. The beginning of such a grand exploration glorifies the fullness of its potential, (while the climax often exposes the limits of that potential).
Hmm, interesting intellectual verbiage…
More plausibly, I remember the launch because it happened the day after my birthday, and I still had some excitement inside of me from seeing all my friends and playing all those games. (Not to mention, getting all those gifts!)
Yet I cannot downplay the significance of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. I remember that vividly – the whole family gathered at my uncle’s place to watch the historic event. After much waiting, and in the very latest hours of the night, only two people remained awake. Eyes glued to the television, I – who was conceived the same year as NASA – watched unblinkingly as man finally crossed the terrestrial threshold and set foot on a truly alien hunk of rock.
Luckily, I had my many astronomy books to keep me awake. Yeah, I was a nut-head about that kind of stuff, but it proved useful that night. After all, how many times can one get excited about Jules Bergman applying a blowtorch to some metal mock-up of the command module to show us mindless viewers how a heat shield actually worked? (What gets me is they kept on doing this for every Apollo launch. Maybe old Jules was a pyromaniac?)
So, who was the other person who managed to stay awake? My uncle, who lost track of time in his never ending fit to get the slide camera just right. He intended to record the milestone by taking a picture of it. Several times during the long evening, when it appeared Neil Armstrong was about ready to enter the eons, my uncle would end his feverish fidgeting and pose still, bent over and face buried in the back of the camera. Following a few anxious minutes of holding a sweaty finger over the shuttle release, he’d suddenly panic, realizing he forgot to take the lens cap off. This went on all night. By the time the astronauts climbed down the LEM’s (remember that acronym?) ladder, my uncle was more than ready for a good night’s rest. He clicked away and went to sleep.
I stayed up through the night for the analysis. To this day, I don’t know if the picture ever came out. Maybe it did, but by 1969 most of the family knew it was time to leave whenever my uncle brought out his slide projector (although I always thought those vacation pictures were kind of interesting). In either case, the slide shows generally never made it past 1965 (we had to view them in chronological order) when the projector’s light would invariably burn out.
I guess I have one more important memory from the early years of the age of space exploration. Of course I admit I was much younger then and more easily impressed, but I really enjoyed all those Tang commercials. Heck, I was so loyal I even tried Grape Tang when it first came out. I drank Tan religiously in those years. It represented my small part in America’s space program.
To this day I continue to drink Tang, although I usually wait until it goes on sale. I always go to the National Air & Space Museum whenever I’m in Washington, DC. I even dabble as a sometime lecturer in the field of astronomy and stargazing (as one of the Sentinel’s subscribers is witnessing first hand).
Stargazing. That’s a good word. To gaze suggests to look intently with a steady eye. It also means to look with a sense of wonder and amazement. The stars sparkle, far removed from our everyday existence. They represent the next step in our evolution. In a way, we are all stargazers.
Last Week #17: Curse Those Romantic Subplots! (originally published July 13, 1989)
Next Week #19: Fear and Loathing on Route 65 (originally published July 27, 1989)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]