Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Science, Space — Rick Moran @ 9:51 am

It doesn’t seem like 40 years have passed since I sat in the cold living room of our family’s vacation house in northern Michigan watching Neil Armstrong take his step into eternal glory. Memory has a way of telescoping time, making distant events seem immediate and that’s how it is with me and Armstrong’s famous stroll on the surface of the moon.

We had been making the trip to Glen Lake for 6 summers in 1969. The huge, ramshackle old house we rented had a roof that leaked, a kitchen with 1920’s appliances, and no heat. With temps that could plunge into the 40’s at night in the middle of July, we made excellent use of a huge fireplace in the living room and an ancient oil burning heater. But everything about this house was big and the heater and fireplace combination only managed to make about half the living room a comfortable place to sit without a heavy sweater.

No matter. The fire was a treat for us greenhorns from suburbia. And since there was no phone and no TV the first 5 summers we made the 8 hour trip from the northwest suburbs of Chicago to Leelanau County, it really made us feel like we were “roughing it” in the north woods.

I can’t write about the moon landing without writing about Glen Lake. It was a magical place for us because so much of what we did and experienced was beyond the ken of our every day suburban lives. It was a place to test how grown up you could be - a huge attraction for pre teen boys. We learned how to sail, how to play bridge with the adults, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes (unbeknownst to my parents), make out with girls, and explore the pine forests of northern Michigan, pretending that our woodcraft was adequate to the challenge. It wasn’t but we got lucky and never had to pay for our stupidity.

We were already budding bibliophiles thanks to my father’s own love of books that drove him to build a library in our finished basement. But with no TV at Glen Lake, we devoured every book in sight. Over the years, books read by our older siblings were read by us the following year or two and in turn, read by our younger siblings down the line. We had one dog-eared copy of The Three Musketeers that was falling out of its spine, it was passed down to so many of us. (Did I mention there were 10 of us children?)

But the staple of every year’s vacation was reading the pulp fiction that we bought from the rack at Bauman’s Trading Post about two miles from our house. Bauman’s was a place for the ages. They featured a real soda fountain with malts, shakes, floats, cones - everything a growing boy needed to spoil his appetite for dinner. And in the back of the store, was beach reading material of the day; Jacqueline Suzanne, Arthur Hailey, and other potboilers for the grown ups.

And for the kids (and the young at heart) a marvelous collection of classic science fiction, horror, and adventure, including just about everything ever written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was here I fell in love with Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, the Pellucidar and Venus series, as well as Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles still thrills me to this day), Pohl, Sturgeon, and later, Frank Herbert’s Dune.

But that summer of 1969 was a little different. Joining us on our traditional 4 week trek beginning the Saturday after Independence Day was an extremely small TV set. It might have been 9″ or 12″ - I don’t recall. What I do remember is that you couldn’t get any station during the day.

Glen Lake is aptly named. It is surrounded by huge bluffs, and the TV’s small antennae wasn’t up to the task of bringing us a picture while the sun was up. This meant that we missed the actual landing on TV since that event occurred during the day. Fortunately, we were able to pick up a radio station that carried a live feed from Cape Kennedy from one of the networks and listened as Aldrin guided the LEM down to the surface of the moon.

My 81 year old grandfather, aunt, and uncle had made the trip from Chicago to visit us that year and that night, all of us gathered around the ridiculously small screen to watch man take his first steps on the moon. It struck all of us, I think, to see my grandfather witnessing an event that must have seemed almost like magic to him. He grew up in the era of horse and buggy, was a teenager when the Wright brothers flew, was a young man when Henry Ford began to mass produce cars, was in his 40’s when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, and a grandfather when the first jet airplane entered commercial service. We never did ask him what he was thinking as he watched what in his youth was thought impossible.

The TV picture was barely passable which made the crude, blurry images coming from the moon indecipherable for me. I saw a barely moving image that I now know was Armstrong but didn’t really see the pictures of Armstrong making that first step until I saw a replay of the event some time later. What was truly amazing was that about 15 minutes after Armstrong began his stroll on the lunar surface, I fell asleep. I guess I couldn’t see much anyway so why bother?

Except I had been looking forward to that broadcast since I was 7 years old. Almost since the time I could read, I was fascinated with space. One of the first books I can remember reading was an illustrated compilation of the planets and the sun. In a time before any probes had been sent to the planets, I knew that Venus was hot, Mars was cold, Saturn was beautiful, and that you couldn’t stand on the surface of Jupiter because the gravity would make you feel like you weighed 800 pounds (that part is a little hazy).

It was natural, then, that I would fall in love with NASA and the space program. I watched every Mercury liftoff, usually with my mother, who was much more afraid for the astronauts than I was. The Gemini and Apollo missions prior to the moon shot also held my close interest. By then, I could read anything printed in newspapers and magazines on the space program and gobbled up anything that came to my attention.

By the time 1969 rolled around, I was primed and ready. I probably could have written on the mission for almost any newspaper in that I knew as much about as it as most reporters covering it. I knew that the Saturn V booster weighed 6.5 million pounds and could lift 260,000 pounds into orbit. I knew it stood 363 feet in height and could generate nearly 7 million pounds of thrust at takeoff. I knew that it took 8 seconds for the rocket to build up enough thrust to lift the Apollo capsule off the launch pad.

The Saturn V remains one of the largest machines ever built by man and certainly the most powerful. With the capsule and crew module, it had more than a million parts - many of them redundant components in case of failure.

As I reflect back on it, my love of space exploration eventually led to amateur enthusiasms in other scientific fields from anthropology to zoology and everything in between. But as much as I am fascinated by the physical world on this planet and beyond, I never rose above the kind of general interest in scientific matters that has limited my knowledge to this day. Part of it is my atrocious math skills. Another problem is that I have a fairly undisciplined mind - a problem that does not lend itself to real scientific inquiry.

But that hasn’t stopped me from learning all I can about the universe and ultimately, given some thought to our place in it.

We are truly on an island in the cosmos - a safe haven that is, as far as we know, the only place where life has been nurtured and thrived (statistical probability of life elsewhere tell another story and most scientists believe before too long we will discover life fairly close by). It is extraordinarily humbling to contemplate just how big our universe truly is. The fact that the Hubble Space Telescope can image galaxies 14 billion light years from earth is incomprehensible. It’s not just the distance, of course, but the time that we glimpse with these images.

Looking at this picture is like looking through the portal of a time machine where we see galaxies that were already old nearly 10 billion years before our sun formed.

A hundred billion galaxies each with a couple of hundred billion stars should make you feel very small and very alone. But it doesn’t, does it? Perhaps we are incapable of grasping such immense emptiness - our minds possessing a fail safe device that stops us from going mad at the prospect of realizing just how little our lives matter when held up to the enormity of it all.

For people of faith, the emptiness is filled by the presence of an all knowing, all seeing deity. I am actually glad for those who enjoy that kind of certainty but for many of us - even believers who take a slightly different view of God and the cosmos - it is inadequate to the task of answering the fundamental questions of human existence; who are we and why are we here.

Is it enough to say that we are who we are because of evolution and the interaction of chemicals and electricity? Is it enough to say that the reason we are here is because this is where the random fluctuation of atoms from an exploding star that pushed a cloud of hydrogen gas into a ball to form the sun and the planets just happened to drop us?

Is there more to it than that?

When contemplating the relative eternity of the universe, such answers are inadequate indeed - even for an atheist. Is this all there is of existence? Are we, creatures formed of star stuff, condemned to wander the pathways of our mind seeking answers to the unanswerable? Is there nothing of the universe in us that we may, one day, be able to tap and glimpse ultimate truth?

The moon landing was an expression of that hunger to know, to understand, to seek out knowledge for the sheer joy of knowing. Eventually - if we can find a way to survive - we will step off this rocky mount and hurl ourselves into the void looking for some of the answers to those questions. We still may not find them. But we will surely discover something just as valuable; that trying to satisfy our insatiable need to learn new things will expand our consciousness and open new frontiers, the shape and scope of which we cannot even imagine today.


  1. Beautiful, Rick. Just beautiful.

    Comment by shaun — 7/20/2009 @ 1:03 pm

  2. Rick,

    I have enjoyed your writings in Right Wing Nuthouse for many years and have commented on occasion. One point I would like to make or rather to emphasize.

    There are ~100 billion suns in this galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. Each of these suns is likely to have one or more planets that may indeed be able to support life of one type or another.

    With the number of possible planets in this universe it is so remotely unlikely that we would be the only life-giving planet that for all intents and purposes the probability should be zero. That Earth should be the only life-supporting planet in the universe is just as statistically likely as two identical snowflakes landing side by side upon a microscope slide in your hand in a snowstorm. I take it as a fact that there is life on other planets.

    One other point where you and I may disagree is the overall benefit of the space program. I consider the moon landing project a technological “Johnny Appleseed” type of operation. Many, many technological apple seeds were planted by this monstrous, bloated, inefficient government Brute Force and Massive Ignorance project. Much good has come from it as these technological seeds have sprouted into new technologies.

    But lately (the past decade?) NASA has devolved into a purely bureaucratic morass where nothing new is accomplished. Even the new Orion spaceship is just a rework of the Apollo project. Sad but not unexpected.

    I appreciate your long time readership. I pointed out parenthetically that it was statistically certain that there is life elsewhere. But until we find it, science does not acknowledge it as fact.

    As for NASA - the more I read about the agency from people who know and not starry eyed reporters or other space enthusiasts like me, the lower it falls in my estimation. I think the reports on Challenger and Discovery bear out this sad fall from greatness more than anything.

    And the question of how much the space program has actually contributed to the development of new technologies is an open one. Clearly, government contracts nurtured some new businesses like Texas Instruments and have probably saved our aerospace industry. But how much would have been done without the space program? These new technologies filled a need in business and industry independent of NASA and would eventually have come into being anyway. The question of how much NASA helped is really impossible to answer.


    Comment by Wramblin' Wreck — 7/20/2009 @ 1:12 pm

  3. “The moon landing was an expression of that hunger to know, to understand, to seek out knowledge for the sheer joy of knowing.”

    Will the eventual Mars mission by us or someone else (or most of us in the developed world, as its perhaps better to share the cost burdens) end up having the same Johnny Appleseed effect WW observes? We can only hope, though it may be much farther off than we once assumed unless there is greater success with the X-Prize-type private-public space partnerships than currently apparent.

    Rick, this piece is exquisite. Thank you for sharing these personal reflections and memories in such a fashion.

    Comment by Eddie — 7/20/2009 @ 2:02 pm

  4. Wramblin’ Wreck,

    But lately (the past decade?) NASA has devolved into a purely bureaucratic morass where nothing new is accomplished.

    Totally disagree. NASA is doing newer and better science now than ever before. The problem is that many of the discoveries made, and feats achieved, are not on the scale needed to captivate a very distracted public.

    NASA has its issues for sure, but the work they do is solid, and good, and will improve lives far out into the future.

    You are correct - as far as it goes.

    No one does basic science better than NASA - no private lab or government in the world. The astonishing discoveries in the last decade using our unmanned robots have revolutionized astronomy, physics, high energy disciplines, optics, exo-biology and other sciences even more than the extraordinary breakthroughs that occurred in the two decades immediately after Sputnik.

    But we suck at launching people into space. The shuttle is a dinosaur that was supposed to be replaced already. The Space Station is a joke. And going back to the future in order to go back to the moon by building a slightly bigger Apollo and a new heavy lift booster - both of which are way over budget already and there is a question of safety - is typical of the no-imagination, no innovation agency that NASA has become.

    Yeah, NASA does great science as long as they don’t have man involved in the equation.


    Comment by Chuck Tucson — 7/20/2009 @ 2:03 pm

  5. OK, I should have qualified my statements better. Thanks for correcting me. I appreciate the constructive criticism. I will agree that many agencies under the NASA umbrella have done wonderful things. Example: the Mars rovers. My heroes!! I follow them carefully, still chugging along 5 years later. Admittedly creaky and tired but still truckin’. I wish everything with a 90 day warranty would last more than 5 years.

    But I still feel that the bureaucratic inertia is holding back the genius of NASA (and many other parts of American ingenuity) from accomplishing truly great fetes that could transform all of our lives and our civilization a thousandfold.

    Comment by Wramblin' Wreck — 7/20/2009 @ 2:50 pm

  6. Rick said:

    Yeah, NASA does great science as long as they don’t have man involved in the equation.

    Totally agree. That’s precisely why the Mars rover missions were so amazingly successful. While humans traveling around the solar system seems cool, letting robots do the work is just as beneficial at only a tiny fraction of the cost.

    Comment by Chuck Tucson — 7/20/2009 @ 3:16 pm

  7. [...] Rick Moran’s post on where he was forty years ago one night in July, and Gerard Vanderleun’s [...]

    Pingback by Fausta’s Blog » Blog Archive » Evening at Glen Lake — 7/20/2009 @ 9:27 pm

  8. Thank you for the post Rick.

    In ‘69 I was 6 years old I remember one day my father calling me in from playing with my friends. I was rather annoyed, especially when he sat me down on the couch to watch a fuzzy black and white image. That image was Apollo 11. He made me sit there for a hour or so to watch the landing and the first steps on the moon. He said something like, later you will appreciation the fact that I made you watch this. At the time I could have cared less, but my dad was right, I do appreciate the fact that he made me watch it.

    Comment by Alarm1201 — 7/21/2009 @ 5:27 am

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