When we think of American greatness, we think of our Founding Fathers, Bill of Rights, sacrifices made, promises kept, unthinkable feats over which people stood stunned and wept. Wars have been waged and won, rights defined and secured, medicines discovered, technologies procured, humanity enriched by America’s boon – but nothing compares with going to the moon.
Fifty-three years ago this month, three Americans traveled to the moon, and two walked. When only 80 million Americans had a television, some 720 million people around the world watched.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked; Mike Collins orbited. In Houston, Mission Control – and America – took immeasurable pride in doing the impossible. The feat still resonates.
In Washington, President Nixon prepared to speak with Armstrong and Aldrin, as they placed experiments, bounced in one-sixth gravity, no atmosphere.
The “Great Space Race” was an unprecedented “throw down” to the Soviets, a communist empire already ahead in space, having put up a satellite and man. The challenge was stunning, could easily have been lost, but … was preferable to open conflict.
Who could put men on the moon first? As a surrogate for nuclear war, an ideological and technological competition, it was gripping. The very idea of humans on the moon was science fiction, Jules Vern, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, or Star Trek.
What country would pose the challenge? Only America. With tens of thousands, my father worked on that decade-long effort. By fate’s twist, Buzz has – over 25 years – become a friend. While Neil and Mike have gone on, Buzz and other Apollo astronauts remain alive and well.
This block, between July 4th – Independence Day – and July 20, Apollo 11’s landing, reminds us to recall America’s greatness. If there were ever a time when we needed that, this is it. So, drawing on recent discussions with Buzz, a few thoughts to lift your day – as they do mine.
How did he and Neil feel when on the moon? “I really have to tell you that when you are assigned to something like that, it’s a bit intimidating…a lot of people will be watching, but we focused on what we had to do…you just hope you are doing it right…so we focused on doing the basic things right.” Any fear? “No, no time for that.”
Most recall the plaque left on the moon, “We Came in Peace for All Mankind.” Did you leave anything else? Yes, among other things, “we got permission to leave…an extra patch” of Apollo 11, a patch “representing the Apollo 1 crew…” and a “medallion from the Soviets” honoring lost cosmonauts. Of course, also the American flag – saluted by Aldrin on the moon.
Does he ever look up at the moon at night, ponder having walked there? No, not really, as they studied the moon’s surface so closely that, to many, it became a place you knew up close, like a city by reference to the city street map. For them, it was a real place where they could go and went.
He joked about “not locking the door behind me” when he climbed down the ladder from the LEM after Armstrong, but reminds me of truth attached to the comment, since they did not want a “pressure lock” if he pulled the door tight.
Did he anticipate the moonwalk, before getting out? Buzz is funny in a way, even now, somehow imagining that others may one day have the experience he had, or humbly transposing others with himself as if they might have done what he did.
“You don’t think about it too much, you know? One thing at a time when you’re there, you look out the window and its surrealistic …,” was “magnificent desolation.” Where did that phrase come from? “Well, I just looked out, and it was magnificent and desolate…I think Neil remarked on the beauty, too.”
What did you both feel, having landed with less than 30 seconds of fuel left? Aldrin said, “contact light,” Armstrong said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” new call sign. “Neil remembers we shook hands, and I recall putting my hand on his shoulder and we smiled,” then they had jobs to do in the first minute 30 seconds, two and a half, then four.
What about taking communion on the moon? “Well, I wanted …I felt this was symbolic …,” so he consulted with clergy. He intended to announce it, like Apollo 8 reading Genesis, but pulled back on request. Taking communion, he asked the “world to give thanks.” Simple, profound.
Buzz jokes that the crew sort of missed the “big event,” all humanity coming together while they were on the moon. Given its importance to so many, he is often told where people were. He is “trying to keep track of” where everyone was, he quips. He is low key, an advocate decades ago for space tourism, happy to see happening, eager for America’s return to the moon, on to Mars.
He is convinced Mankind should establish “permanence” on Mars, and – given all he has done, improbabilities overcome, his confidence in that eventuality may be well-placed. In times like these, when much is questioned, when doubts about destiny surface, history derided, patriots diminished, and one wonders if we are what we were, and if the future can be built on what was … ask Buzz. With no doubt or hesitation, confident in America, he thinks so. I like that.