Editor’s Report: Children of Apollo

How does the past shape our present and future?

Space Age Memorabilia

This selection of childhood souvenirs from the author’s collection captures some of the spirit of the Moon landings.

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.

Categories: Editor's Report
5 comments on “Editor’s Report: Children of Apollo
  1. Aram Kaprielian says:

    Nice piece Gary.

  2. Bob Freeman says:

    I rejoiced when I read your article. I have a Telegram copy from the same dayI obviously had similar ideas at the time. It was nice to find others who shared that feeling!

  3. Brian W. Allan says:

    The space race definitely had an impact on me. I was 21 at the time of the Moon landing and probably had gone into Engineering as a result of all the new technologies being developed during the ’60’s.

    I built an EQ mount as a high school science project in 1966 and have been a avid astro-imager ever since. I’m still in awe every time I look up at the sky on a clear night…

    I’m also in awe of the technologies available to amateur astronomers today. Most of this technology would have had even professional astronomers drooling in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Considering my original astro-images were taken with a Brownie 620 film camera I guess anything would be considered an major improvement!?

  4. Duncan ETCHES says:

    I was driving from Ethiopia to Nairobi in Kenya and the night of the landing I was camped on the volcanic rim of Mt. Marsabit. Below us elephants were bellowing at the crater lake; a cerval cat ran across my sleeping bag. In this most primitive of situations, I was looking at the moon as the highest level of technology was landing there. The contrast physically and philosophically couldn’t have been greater.

  5. I too was born on May 5 (1958) and as a small boy remember the Gemini and Apollo missions. I vividly remember Apollo 8 and the Christmas Eve broadcast.
    I grew up an engineer and throughout my years have always had astronomy and rocketry as two enormously enjoyable hobbies.
    This weekend there is an amateur rocketry launch SE of Lethbridge AB. A group from the Calgary club has a planned launch for Sat July 1 morning a 25’ high scale Saturn V to honour the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Google the Lethbridge rocketry site for more details on the launch and some photos post launch.
    Oh and bring your telescopes and enjoy some dark sky viewing at the launch site free from city lights!!

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