Forty years is less than a blip in cosmic time but it seems like forever ago to me. I was playing Monopoly with my parents that night. I was five days shy of my 10th birthday so staying up for what seemed like an eternity between the landing and Neil Armstrong's history-making "giant leap for mankind" was a big deal. I guess they knew there was no way they were going to keep me in bed on a night like that. It was the night I decided I would be the first man on Mars -- me and every other 10 year-old on Earth.
Shortly after touchdown on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility, we heard Flight Control's response from Houston:
"Roger ... Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!"We didn't know that night how close the whole thing came to being a complete disaster. The computer system had frozen up. Armstrong disconnected the autopilot -- a stunt that during practice back on terra firma had always ended in a tumbling crash -- and landed the contraption manually. When they touched down, they were almost out of fuel.
There will be plenty documentaries and remembrances about Apollo 11 but what strikes me about it now are things I never considered important back then. While I know for sure that I imagined myself piloting a spaceship and being heroic, I don't remember ever considering the idea that all of us down here on Earth were spellbound by the enormity of the event. We could all look up at the Moon at the same time and know that two of our fellow earthlings were actually up there standing in the moon dust. Though it was an American accomplishment, it was more than that. It was an astounding triumph for humanity. The plaque on one leg of the LEM, signed by President Nixon, spoke for us all.
"We Came In Peace For All Mankind"
Forty years later we don't seem to all be looking up anymore. Peace seems like an alien concept. Our world is anything tranquil. For all the potential the mission of Apollo 11 had to remind us of our common human condition, it only lasted for a brief blip in time. Not long thereafter the whole thing became just another news story. By the time Apollo 17 completed its mission, no one seemed to be watching at all.
Everyone remembers what Neil Armstrong said when he became the 1st man on the Moon, but few remember the first words that came to Buzz Aldrin's mind when he became the 2nd man on the Moon: "Magnificent desolation"
It says something about us that we can dream so big, that we can achieve so much, that we can forget the things that should unite us so quickly, and that we can be so awed by the magnificence of the creation. We are flawed creatures who are too easily enthralled with our own importance and too distracted by trying to prove it that we lose any sense of what is really real. We are so busy working on the next thing we forget to reflect on the True thing. We become so overwhelmed with the past and the future that we forget about the now.
But every once in a while we stop.
We recognize our fallen nature and realize that in all our technological bluster and extravagance we still fail to find tranquility and peace. We realize that we are lost in the vastness of a purpose so big we cannot comprehend it. Overwhelmed, we dismiss it too easily. In our hearts we understand that we cannot begin to contemplate how lost we are and how badly we need to be saved ... but we do know it.
I was not, and will not be, the first man on Mars. But forty years later that plaque on the LEM is still up there casting that rectangular shadow -- a tiny marvel of technology amid a tranquil sea of magnificent desolation. My self-serving aim was destined to fail but the reality that hits me when I reconsider the meaning of it all is a sobering one that I will cling to forever and try to pass on to others ...
We are small, but we can still look up. Only then does it all make sense.