Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lost in space

Men first returned to earth from the moon this day, 45 years ago.

When I turned seven.

It lacks the crystalline ting! of "Man landed on the moon this day, Sunday, July 20, 1969," probably the Associated Press' best news lead ever, from four days before. But you take what comes.

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins fell from the sky, landing their little barbecued space capsule into the Pacific Ocean 45 years ago today — the very same day of the week, even! Something a seven-year-old would find marvelous.

The Apollo 11 astronauts could have disintegrated on re-entry if their capsule came in too perpendicular to the atmosphere, we were told. Or they could have bounced right back into space, lost forever, if too shallow. But they didn't.

Armstrong and Aldrin also could have died right there on the moon — agonizing oxygen-robbing deaths, made worse by the fact that Collins orbiting the moon in the command module would have jetted back to Earth without them, as planned — if their module didn't launch properly off its surface.

Horrors I think seven-year-olds secretly relish.

But they didn't. The astronauts survived, the USS Hornet aircraft carrier scooped them up, President Nixon was on deck to say hello from outside the special Airstream®™ trailer where the astronauts had been whisked into quarantine so they didn't infect the world with alien diseases.

In the spirit of optimism, my mom made — or had made — a round chocolate layer cake with gray frosting cratered like the surface of the moon. A spaceman and space ship might have been on the surface too, and maybe a U.S. flag on a toothpick.

Photos exist somewhere.

The cake was delicious. Gray frosting and being seven years old made it so.

Though I'm absolutely sure I coveted several wonderful toys that day, why do I remember only the commemorative Apollo 11 medallion, encased in lucite, that Grandma Gibson gave me? I still have it somewhere.

I like to think that night I looked up at the moon and tried to see where the astronauts stepped. I remember shivering with the realization that someone had actually been up there — damn you, persistent hoax mongers! — 250,000 miles away, just a few days before.

Or maybe it was the next rare clear summer night. I've said before, no astronomers came from my hometown, encased as it was by each afternoon in fog. It figures that a missile base operates there, somewhere in that fog.

I remember assuming the future would be filled more and farther and greater astronaut missions, that Apollo 11 and the moon was just the start. Instead, the descendants of all that technology and awe became the iPhone®™ and Instagram©®. Cool and useful, I suppose, but no walk on Mars, which is what i thought would be going on by now.

Impressive as space exploration is — the work of brilliant people who grew up about the same time as me and saw stars and reached for them, with little ships that fly the heavens and unfold on alien lands like origami swans — it's still not human space exploration.

When Ron Howard's Apollo 13 came out in theaters. I remmber a flash of shame as the movie pointed out America — and I — had already lost interest in moon launches, just two launches later. Skylab wandered around, ushering in the international space station, still spinning, still working. The Space Shuttle flew as regular as non-stop flights to Dallas, and then that ended.

We are far short of where I thought we would be; I can say the same for myself.

This week NASA named a building at the Kennedy Space Center after Armstrong, first man on the moon. All these years later, Aldrin and Collins appear magnanimous in honoring Armstrong, professionals befitting their profession.

Collins, especially, had the job of sacrificing himself to history, and sometimes he's called the forgotten astronaut. He spoke in exaltation of Armstrong, talking about how he built a wind tunnel as a kid and seemed destined to step first on an alien heavenly body.

All those years until his death, Armstrong rarely spoke in public about his place in history. He was the model of a test pilot, taciturn, just doing his job. All these years later, having accomplished the Firstiest First in Human History, I find Armstrong's unwillingness to have said so much as "Ain't that something!" in to a microphone frustrating and strange.

Even all these years later, my favorite cheerleader for "creation science," Ken Ham, used the spotlight of the Apollo 11 anniversary this week to call for cutting funds to NASA because, even if scientists find alien life, those life forms won't go to heaven because that's reserved for we special humans.

At least I can infer that Ken Ham acknowledges that science may eventually discover we are not alone in the universe.

Heaven help us. Have some cake.

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