How does the past shape our present and future?
May 5, 1961. That date has always had great significance for me. Not only was it the day Alan Shepard blasted off in his Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft to become the first American in space, it was also the day I was born. I’ve often wondered whether that coincidence played a role in shaping my life. Perhaps, perhaps not. But like so many other kids growing up in the 1960s, I was caught up in the excitement of the space race as the Mercury program segued into Gemini and then Apollo, finally culminating with the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
It was Shepard’s mission that arguably gave birth to the Moon program. Less than three weeks after Freedom 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and made his famous declaration that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Without Shepard’s successful flight, it’s difficult to imagine Kennedy backing such an ambitious scheme. May 5, 1961, proved to be a promising start to a tumultuous decade.
There was something in the air in the 1960s. The Beatles, Expo 67, Woodstock, Trudeaumania—and so much more, both good and bad (some, very bad). But even in the context of that remarkable span of time, the accomplishments of Apollo burn as bright as the exhaust plume from a Saturn V rocket. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that the first Moon landing, on July 20, 1969, may well represent the high-water mark of our species. It was a triumphant merging of imagination, science, industry and politics—all the stuff we humans occasionally do well, though rarely all at once.
The television spectacle of a “man on the Moon” also reinforced a broader narrative—that we were living in the so-called space age. In the 1960s, the notion was inescapable. Space was everywhere—on TV, in magazines and newspapers and, of course, in the toys kids played with. (Remember Billy Blastoff? How about Major Matt Mason?) You could even find “space” in boxes of Red Rose tea, in the form of little picture cards one could collect and stick into a booklet (purchased separately for 25 cents). Indeed, the excitement of the space age was so pervasive that even a young boy growing up on an orchard in rural British Columbia could feel it and be a part of it.
I remember writing to NASA as a 10-year-old, requesting photos from the most recent Moon mission (Apollo 15). It’s remarkable my plea reached its destination at all given that it was addressed simply, “To: NASA, USA.” A few weeks later, a large manila envelope arrived in the mail containing a brief letter (on NASA letterhead!) and three 8×10 photos. You had to have lived in a small town in 1971 to grasp how monumental something as basic as receiving a piece of mail from afar could be. I still have the photos.
It might have been the televised sight of the Apollo astronauts bounding effortlessly across the lunar surface in slo-mo that convinced me I simply had to have a telescope. Fifty years later, I’m not certain. But I do know that the very first thing I aimed my new scope at was the Moon. I can still vividly recall the thrill of exploring the grey, pockmarked lunar surface for myself. And that thrill hasn’t diminished with the passage time.
What about you? Did the Apollo Moon landings affect the path you’ve taken through life? Are you reading this editorial now because 50 years ago, Neil Armstrong took “one small step” for all of us?
If it’s true that the Moon landings helped introduce an entire generation to the wonders of space, is it also true that when the children of Apollo are no longer around, participation in backyard astronomy will decline? No one can say for sure. Our ability to predict the future remains as stubbornly out of reach today as it did on May 5, 1961.