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.