Forty-five years ago, on July 16, 1969, a Saturn-5 rocket was launched from Cape Kennedy on Florida’s northeast coast. Carrying three astronauts, the spacecraft circled the globe one and a half times, then re-ignited its engines and headed toward the moon. Much of the human race watched, excited and nervous.
Before Apollo 11, there had been almost five dozen unmanned lunar voyages. The goal of some was a simple flyby, sailing past the target to get a quick glimpse. Others were meant to go into orbit and take pictures. Still others were supposed to land, and transmit visual and digital data. A few were intended to retrieve rock and soil samples and bring them back for analysis.
More than half of these missions failed. Some never made it off the launch pad, or into orbit. Some missed the moon entirely, or crashed into it. And some arrived at their destination, only to experience what space agencies call a mechanical malfunction. In other words, something broke, got jammed, or just didn’t work.
I’m not sure the general public knew about most of those unsuccessful attempts. We’d watched several of them on television in our classrooms, but as soon as a rocket tipped over and burst into flames, the teacher would turn off the set and we’d go back to diagramming sentences or studying Bible stories. And we’d forget about the mechanical malfunction as quickly as we’d forgotten about yesterday’s hot lunch. There would always be another try in a few months.
Seventy-six hours after liftoff, the Apollo 11 crew was in lunar orbit. On July 20, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin separated from Michael Collins, the command module pilot, and descended to the surface. Maneuvering the lunar module over boulders and craters, they eventually settled down in a dry plain called the Sea of Tranquility, becoming – as far as we know – the first people to land on another world.
I had been working on a similar plan of my own.
There was a room on the ground floor at the front of our two-family brick house in the Bronx. It was a storage space, where my father kept his hand tools and a bronze-colored sword that he claimed was from the Civil War. There were also Christmas decorations and spare tires and dusty wooden cases of seltzer bottles. And there was the rocket ship I was building.
I wasn’t really building a rocket ship. I had neither the expertise nor the funding for that kind of project. But there was this girl in my second-grade class. I liked her, in that vague manner of seven-year-old boys, probably based on nothing more than the way she chewed on her pencil eraser while figuring out an arithmetic problem. One morning, after watching a launch, I told her that I was constructing a rocket in my house, and that if she wanted to, she could go with me into Earth orbit. This was 1962, and although we had been electrified by John Glenn’s heroics, the prospect of reaching the moon remained unrealistic. In fact, an issue of our Weekly Reader had flatly declared that such a thing would never happen, and that it was all but impossible. I didn’t dare contradict the Weekly Reader, so I limited my endeavor to a couple of loops around the planet. The girl accepted the offer, and seemed somewhat dazzled by my ambition.
But the truth is, there was no rocket ship in my house. There was a pile of junk that I inexplicably thought of as the raw materials I would need to build one: old umbrellas, oily bicycle chains, folded lawn chairs with torn webbing, a rusted cabinet of some sort, and an obsolete washing machine.
After months of listening to my evasive excuses and senseless explanations, the girl appeared at my house, without warning and accompanied by a friend. They demanded to see the rocket, and they wouldn’t leave unless I showed it to them. I led them into the storage room, and the three of us stood there for a minute, silently gazing at the assortment of objects stacked to the ceiling.
“Wow!” they said, because they, too, were seven years old. Satisfied at last, they went outside to jump rope and sing impossibly-intricate songs and talk about how stupid the boys were.
Meanwhile, NASA got its act together. After a major tragedy and several sparkling successes, it sent those men to the moon and – as President Kennedy had urged – returned them safely to the Earth. Six more missions followed, with a total of twelve astronauts treading on our only natural satellite. Three others almost died trying.
Nobody has been there since 1972. For a little while, it was a place we visited, a place that felt less remote and more familiar. The excursions were no doubt fueled as much by political competition and military paranoia as by liquid propellants. But most of us could ignore all that, and simply feel proud and hopeful about the accomplishment.
Subsequent generations have lost that connection. For them, the moon is once again a big, shiny rock that comes out at night. Still, it retains the power to make us stop, and stare. Especially when it’s full and looks enormous in the sky.
The moon’s orbit around the Earth is elliptical, so sometimes the distance between them is smaller than at other times. When the moon arrives at its closest point and is full, we call it a Super Moon. There was one this past weekend. If you missed it because of heavy clouds, or because you were busy constructing a rocket ship in your basement, there are two more coming up – on August 10 and September 9. The event in August will represent the moon’s nearest approach to Earth all year. And you can count on that. Unlike humans and their inventions, the moon is always where it’s supposed to be, and doing what it’s supposed to do. It never has a mechanical malfunction. And it never has to tell a lie just to impress a girl.