Fifty years ago

I was just a kid—9-1/2 years old—when Apollo 11 went to the moon. I remember watching the landing with my family (and a billion other people) that summer and also following closely all the Apollo missions before and after. I was quite the space travel buff and I’m sure that era had a lot to do with my lifelong love of science.

What I remember was that they weren’t just moon flights. It was a Space Race and we had to beat the Soviets. It was the Cold War and astronauts weren’t just rocket jockeys they were Cold Warriors. Here’s a 1968 TIME magazine cover that captures the feeling:

space race

Odd how the Russian cosmonaut seems to be ahead and the American astronaut is wearing a goofy gold-colored space suit. But we’ll allow for artistic license.

The USSR, it turned out, had no real lunar program and were not a threat to win the so-called race. But we didn’t know that at the time. The war in Vietnam was still in full swing with over half a million US troops still in country. Civil rights and other domestic political issues, not to mention opposition to the war, dominated the headlines. It is amazing that NASA continued to get the funding and support it needed to pull off the moon landings.

NASA probably had to frame the whole thing as a projection of American Power in order to keep it moving forward. People lose interest in technology for its own sake, it has to have some other benefit. We got sold on the “beat the Russians” angle and that kept the money flowing. If you remember the Olympics from those years, beating the Soviets head-to-head and in the medal count was the dominant narrative.

Regardless, it was a hell of a thing for men to walk on the moon. The outpouring of joy from across the globe when the mission was a success was an amazing thing. Sometimes a thing starts out one way and ends as another.

Neil died in 2012. Mike and Buzz are in their late 80s. What is remarkable to me is what great celebrities they all made. Despite their accomplishments they remained mostly the same dignified, serious, and humble men they had been before their moon flight made them heroes.


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