Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Remembering the moon landing

Sunday night, July 20, was the 45th anniversary of the first time man walked on the moon.  Like most of the people alive when it happened, I can remember vividly where I was.  I was visiting a rural dairy farm in Southeast Minnesota that was set on a hill so the TV reception was superb.  The sun had only been down for a short time and there were hundreds of fireflies in the gathering darkness.

Yes indeed, I was a space aficionado—and had been since the first flight of Sputnik in 1957.  That afternoon, I was riding along with my father as he ran errands.  I got left in the car with the radio running.  I was too young to understand the significance of that basketball-sized projectile that did little more than beep, but I could clearly hear the fear in the voices of the people who read the news.  Those errands took about an hour and a half and it seemed like Sputnik was all they could talk about.  Soon, I would discover that Sputnik meant that every year I was handed a brand new science textbook.  I may have lived in tiny towns with tiny schools that could not afford first-rate science teachers, but I always had textbooks that were as good as the country could produce.

I would graduate from high school in 1967 so I had completed two years at a university by the summer of 1969.  The era between 1957 and 1969 was truly the golden age of USA areospace.  In addition to the manned space program, the industry produced such phenomenal aircraft as the X-15 (first flown in 1959, it still holds the official world record for the highest speed ever reached by a manned, powered aircraft—its maximum speed was 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h), the SR-71 (first flown in 1966, it has held the world record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft since 1976) and the incomparable Boeing 747 (first flown in 1969, it is still the fastest subsonic air transport in the skies.)  Anyone remotely interested in the details of powered flight had plenty to follow.  And I did.  I pretended I was sick so I could stay home from school on February 20, 1962.  I wanted to listen to John Glenn orbit the earth on the radio (we did not have a TV and it really wouldn't have made much difference if we had.)

Around here, we celebrated the anniversary of men on the moon by watching the utterly charming (fictionalized) account of Australia's role in getting those amazing TV pictures of the first moonwalk back to earth—called The Dish (2000).  I really like this movie because it depicts this incredible event from the perspective of a small town in the middle of nowhere.  That's as close to my perspective as is likely to be made into a movie—so I have a high-def copy.  I like the characters, the costumes and hairdos, the music selections, the humorous takes on cultural stereotypes, and above all, the excitement the people of Parks Australia felt being a part of an event that would prove that science can be daring.

I need to remember the good parts because while it was happening in 1969, I had begun to sour on the mighty feats of USA aerospace.  I was literally sickened by the idea that a magnificent aircraft like the B-52 was being used to drop high explosive on peasants working rice paddies with the help of water buffalo. I was furious that the nation had in 1968 elected a liar who promised to end the war against the Vietnamese with his "secret plan" and then did no such thing.  Flying may be one of the great aesthetic accomplishments of human history, but the warmongers made certain they could even turn that into a tool for pure evil.

One of the details The Dish does especially well comes in the portrayal of Al, the NASA rep from Houston. Very bright, thorough, and assertive, he initially grates on his Aussie colleagues but eventually wins them over because of his intrinsic honesty, his humility in the face of the big project, his dry humor, but mostly his relentlessly pragmatic problem-solving style.  He sums it all up when he explains that aw-shucks small-town Neil Armstrong was his favorite guy at NASA.

A guy from Ohio, Armstrong was the pluperfect pilot because he was driven to master every tiny detail of flight.  He built models, he soloed at 16, he studied (and eventually taught) aeronautical engineering, he became an accomplished test pilot, and so much more.  When he was chosen to make the first moon landing, he was arguably the best pure pilot to have ever lived.  Good thing, too as that first landing was only seconds away from disaster.  He so thoroughly understood the science of flight, and how aerospace design and manufacturing fits into that science, he was able to get the absolute maximum out of the lunar lander on his first try.

I still find it all quite amazing.  I look back on those days with an utter certainty that in its current configuration, USA absolutely could not return to the moon.  And lots of other things.  We have lost a great deal in the process of deindustrialization.  It is good for people to build difficult things.  That was the heart of Kennedy's great line "We choose to go to the moon and do those other things, not because it is easy but because it is hard."  I miss the science done to make things better, not to make a gazillion.   And I certainly miss the can-do style of the folks who pulled off the moon shot.  And THAT is the quality we must reclaim to survive.  Rebuilding the country to operate without fire is a project that will make the moon landing look like a cheap stunt.

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