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Opinion

Beyond Apollo 11’s 50th Anniversary – Remembering Who We Are

. Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary

America is a reservoir of inspiration – and courage.  We must never forget it.  Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary reminds us who we really are.  My father’s career was a lazy river – until it hit a waterfall.  Navy service, family, and then life changed.  Overnight, his penchant for engineering swept him into the vortex – Gemini and Apollo.  His life mission changed – or was found, along with that of 500,000 other Americans – who worked on getting America to the moon.

Oldest of four kids, I arrived in 1960.  You might think memories recorded in 1969 would be grainy, like those old images from the moon landings.  They are not.  That is because when I say our father threw himself into this – I mean completely.  

His job involved “S-band” radar, or “high-gain,” setting communications downlinks for uplinks that were antennae on Apollo’s command and lunar modules. That is how America tracked voices, data and telemetry at lunar distance. 

In a nutshell, if a tracking station had Apollo’s command or lunar module in view, so long as both had high-gain antennae, we could see, talk and listen to the astronauts with Earth’s giant parabolic dish-antennae.  They ringed the Earth.

As kids, we knew nothing about parabolic antennae.  And “S” was just a letter.  But these things had to be important, since piles of books took up residence in our living room.  Our father was always in Australia, Guam, or at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, later Houston and Goddard.   Mom apparently also thought this was important.

To us, this was all terribly exciting.  Our father brought home plastic piggy banks shaped like Gemini capsules.  He let us taste goo that was awful – but we were excited, since this was “astronaut food.”  He took us up inside the dishes, let us walk around in them, telling us scientific stuff none of us remember.

Most of all, he worked really hard, and apparently loved what he was doing.  It was – we just knew this – really important.  Why, was not quite clear.  But then half a million other families were puzzling with us, and the entire country started using space words, like capsule, thrust, countdown, launch trajectory, orbit, lunar rendezvous, descent, ascent and splashdown. 

So, we went along for the ride– and so did all of America.  In our family, this meant learning about space, being dragged outside at 3:00 a.m. for lunar eclipses.  It meant lectures on napkins at the dinner table about our Solar System, how Earth and moon fit into it.    

Most of all, it involved inexplicable exhilaration, a certain wild confidence in the future, Mankind’s destiny in space.  It was about America’s unbridled daring, a never-say-never attitude – faith in our ability to do anything.  Even to kids, being on the moon was a hard-to-imagine, walking on that white disk in the sky. 

So, what happened?  This extraordinary, unstoppable nation did exactly what my father, hundreds of thousands of engineers, believers and doers, and 250 million Americans – said they would do.  We put two men – in July 1969 – on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. 

The entire world watched these Americans in one-sixth gravity bounce among craters, as if children at play.  They talked to the rest of us from their faraway perch, took photographs, set up experiments, then lit that ascent engine, rejoined the command module, and came home.

Working together, America did the impossible.  That is what it was, too – impossible.  No other nation has ever done it, and the one that tried, failed.  We put minds and hearts together, imagined with high purpose, planned with impeccable care, and made it happen.  Your iPhone has 1,300 times the computing power of Apollo 11’s – so much fell to humans.

In short, a free, confident, and unbridled America, unified by urgency, faith and determination to win is unstoppable. That was Apollo, a place where determination met destiny and made history.  Unity – together believing in founding principles, their timeless nature, in each other, in ourselves and in a beneficent God – put us on track for success.  

Later, in an ironic twist, books were piled high in my own living room doing oversight of NASA, almost 30 years after the Apollo 11 landing. But on this 50th anniversary week, every American should just go look up at the moon – as we did, when we were kids.  America is the impossible.

Fittingly, the official 50th Anniversary launch celebration, attended by Buzz Aldrin, occurred at the Ronald Reagan Library.  Reagan would have very much liked that.  And it was if America was assembled there.  Gloria Gaynor sang the National Anthem, a salute was offered by “Apollo 13” Actor Gary Sinise, tributes by Colin Powell on the big screen, along with William Shatner of Star Trek – telling how Apollo 11 shaped their lives.  Tommy James sang songs from the Apollo era – like “Crimson and Clover” – and private sector space companies mingled with NASA thinkers. 

Words from President Trump: “In the face of an extraordinary challenge, the entire world marveled … at a previously unimaginable achievement.”  Vice President Pence’s words also echoed: “Since that incredible mission, Apollo 11 has inspired generations of Americans and people around the world, giving us the courage to dream bigger, to go farther, and to take giant leaps in service to causes greater than ourselves.”

My father would have liked all this.  This is the America he loved, dedicated to the future, to space exploration and thinking big.  He would have liked the smooth communications, no “glitches.” And he would have liked his son being there, the generations beyond his still dreaming.

The young me would have liked the model rockets, ice statue of Buzz Aldrin, smoking fly-over, space-themed desert cookies.   The old me did, too.  America is still filled with wild inspiration. We must step up, believe in who we are, have faith in prudence, in who we are, how we got here and were we are going.  Then – get on to the moon and Mars. 

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Read more articles by Robert B. Charles

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Robert Roland

Outstanding article, I was 11 and watched it with my parents. We were glued to the TV for liftoffs, the TV broadcasts from space, the landings, the reentry and splash downs. My dad couldn’t get enough as he had been a WWII Fighter pilot and did some test pilot work for private small plane companies after the war. He always said how much he would have liked to have been up there.

Mike Lynas

Great article. I was 21 at the time and with a group of friends, we watch it together. I remember being totally surprised that we would actually see this watershed event on TV. It was just so wonderful seeing this impossible event with the rest of world. I felt so proud of our country and President Kennedy who said America would reach the moon before the end of the decade. Thank you for this article.

Clark Kent

Why don’t we spend all of that government ca$h here on Earth (specifically repairing/replacing our crumbling infrastructure) before we worry about visiting the Moon and Mars? Talk about misplaced priorities…