I grew up thinking about outer space. Sputnik is one of my early memories, and I remember riding on U.S. 80, raptly listening to radio reports about the Russian dog Laika, who died in orbit in 1957.
In first grade I had a lunchbox with a picture of a moon base on one side and a drawing of a space station and rockets on the other. I found one like it online a couple of years ago and I still carry my lunch in it.
One of the nuns brought a tiny battered portable television into our classroom in February 1962 as we watched and listened to John Glenn going into orbit to catch the Soviets in the space race.
During the next few years I made plastic models of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft. I kept up with the space program on television, in the pages of the Longview Daily News afternoon edition, and by the late ‘60s, through my subscriptions to magazines like Time and Life.
By the time we landed on the moon, I was a teenager who had been driving for several months but I still had a boy’s enthusiasm for our national commitment to land men safely on the moon and return them home.
I say we landed on the moon because we all seemed part of it. We don’t say the government landed, though huge contracts were disbursed to accomplish the job. Some might say NASA did it, but to me it seemed America was doing it.
At my house on Maple Street we did not have a color television, nor even a real air conditioner other than an evaporative water fan in the room my dad converted from the garage.
We sat together and watched the grainy and blurred images from the moon. We could see rocks and craters, and at the end noted dust kicked up by the rocket engines. At the time it was hard to know exactly what we were seeing.
I probably held my breath as Neil Armstrong steered the lunar excursion module to touchdown. Then the first words from the moon: “Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
It seemed to take forever for them to get out onto the surface.
They couldn’t just roll down the window and open the door. There was no airlock in the lightweight module.
From the time he said it, I realized that Armstrong flubbed his big line by dropping the “a” in saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Walter Cronkite said that even though he knew we had done it, it still seemed like a dream.
I remember walking out into the backyard that evening and looking up at the moon. It was a waxing crescent moon in the western sky. It seemed almost everybody in the world, even in Red China and the USSR, was looking at the same moon.
Then came better images, especially the photograph of Buzz Aldrin saluting the American flag on the moon.
I felt really proud of that flag. It’s still there, though the sun will have long since bleached the colors.
It might have been my imagination, or it might have been wishful thinking, but at the time my mind flew into what I’d grown up hoping the future would be, an era of peace and prosperity for all humanity, which back then we called mankind.
Half a century ago we gazed in pride and wonder as we sent our explorers into the cosmos. It feels like a dream.