Forty years ago, I watched on a black and white screen as Neil Armstrong made “one giant leap for mankind.” Perhaps only the kids of my generation (I was in second grade in 1969) really understand that sense of awe and wonder that only a child can conjure up about arguably one of the greatest moments in human history. Back then, I could only imagine the world would be like in 40 years, when we would live on Mars and travel to distant stars. Little did I know that aside from Velcro, Tang and some giant boulders, we would have nothing to show for this extraordinary achievement.
I do not have a firm answer, but I have many suspicions. For one, NASA was always its own worst enemy. They had the greatest story in history, and nobody to tell it. They chose for their super-hero a real Jack Armstrong, a guy named Neil Armstrong. He was picked to be first man on the moon in part because administrators believed he was the “strong silent type.”
He best fit in the tradition of the two other great American aviators of the 20th Century, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes. They were right. Armstrong rarely gave interviews, and only recently wrote an extensive autobiography. So when the last Apollo flight came home in December 1972, the story died.
It would be years before the shuttles were up and going, and after the awe-inspiring Moon shots, the shuttle missions were a weak sequel. Despite two awful tragedies, Challenger and Columbia, can you name anything of note that ever came out of the Shuttle missions?
In addition, 1969 was a busy year. Nixon took office, Vietnam raged on, campuses were boiling over and Ted Kennedy drove his car off the Bridge at Chappaquiddick (two days before the moonwalk). On the sports scene, it was the year of the Miracle Mets. Tom Seaver was quoted this week as saying he remembers the moon landing, and how his teammate Tug McGraw said, “If we can get a man on the moon, we can win the World Series.” So at least the Mets were inspired.
Then there were the people who felt the money was a waste, that instead it could be spent rebuilding crumbling cities. While this notion makes perfect sense, in reality we know that one way or another Washington will waste your money. And indeed when we cut the NASA budget, our cities did not suddenly make a dramatic comeback.
The moon missions also brought out what I call the Moon Loons, the weirdo conspiracy theorists who to this day believe that the moonwalks were all a hoax put on in a Hollywood sound stage. They will tell you that in the moon film, the horizons are all wrong, the stars are out of whack, and the flag should not be waving. And they did not mention it, but I’m sure if you look real hard, that’s Jim Morrison in one of those astronaut suits.
For those of you who feel its time to boldly go where no man has gone before, there is hope. NASA is planning to send astronauts back to the moon in 2020. And we are told, this time they’ll do more than just collect rocks and hit golf balls. But the reality is, this whole moon plan is about as serious as Ralph Kramden was when he threatened Alice in the Honeymooners, “You’re going to the moon.” The money is not there, they’ll be less in 2020 and it’s a good bet there won’t be much clamor for another Buck Rogers moment.
What to do to inspire a jaded nation? The success of the most recent Star Trek movie might generate a newfound interest in a generation that actually needs stellar inspiration. A friend of mine suggested a Reality Show approach to promote interest: Maybe “The Kardashians go to the Moon.” Or “Survivor, The Moon.” Or “Moon Idol.” Okay, that is over the top.
In 1970, a radio show was launched, right at the height of moon-mania. Its host, Casey Kasem, used a signature tag line to close the broadcast: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” The show was cancelled this week.
Dick Brennan email@example.com