Just slightly more alarming to me than marking my own personal fortieth anniversary of entering the world, is the marking of the fortieth anniversary of the landing on the moon (made all the more poignant – if that’s the right word – by the recent passing of Walther Kronkite). Can it really have been that long ago?
If you haven’t yet, please read Tom Wolfe’s Op Ed in Sunday’s New York Times – “One Giant Leap to Nowhere”; it is by turn tragic, cynical, and hopeful; on balance, very well done. He praises those involved in making the moon landing happen, even as he acknowledges that he thinks the success marked the end of the magic that was the U.S. Space Program.
Having launched just four days before our national lift-off, I have always been tied to the moon; both because of my own innate curiosity about it, and because of the cultural moniker given to all us Summer of ’69 births: moon child.
I think one of the reasons that Wolfe’s piece about the moon landing resonates so deeply with me is there is a parallel to be drawn between my life and NASA. Sounds like a stretch, but bear with me; I, too, like the space agency, am struggling to find what that next goal should be; as I face the prospect, due to financial reasons, of having to return to the home I grew up in, I think of some of the critics who say NASA shouldn’t go back to the moon – “it’s been done.” Even if I manage to find gainful employment that allows me to maintain my current standard of living is that enough? Or is the American public – my adoring fans – expecting something bigger, more unexpected out of me. Relocation, and a new job search in un-explored territory? Connecticut? How about elsewhere in New England? Will only NYC do? Where is my Mars, my Jupiter?
See, moving out to WI in the early nineties and pursuing a graduate degree in the performing arts was my long-shot. It was, to use the phrase, shooting the moon. It was the big risk, the kind you take when you are young and relatively privileged enough, and stubborn enough to pursue something you love regardless of its practicality within a capitalist culture. And I did it – I mean, my first degree was earned thanks to my parents and their willingness to mortgage their house (which propelled both me and an older sibling to a Bachelor’s degree), but this one was all me, financed by my TA salary (this was long before UW-Madison found its way to tuition remission for teaching assistants) and the six student loans I took out (and have been paying back, up until this past year, entirely on my own). Despite the odds, with a lot of long, hard work, I achieved my goal; I made it to Tranquility Base; I planted my flag.
Being born in the shadow of the moon landing meant arriving on American soil at the moment when America felt a sense of pride in having followed through on the promise of its idealistic, young President some nine years before. Yes, we had suffered his loss, and the loss of his brother and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. thereafter, and we were starting to wake up to the reality of the morass that was the Vietnam War; we were still licking wounds, but we did not let that deter us from reaching for the stars.
Soon after – after the war, and Watergate, the oil crisis, the hostages in Iran, and AIDS, and the dozen or so things we swept under the rug or tried to forget – along came better technology and bigger cars and we got lulled into a sense of false comfort; we were happy enough to have the Cold War end and our economy (seemingly) grow more robust and our standard of living was to be rivaled, so wasn’t that enough?
We forgot what it meant to reach for things – things that cost money and take effort but whose end goal is the furthering of our story as a species and our understanding of our tiny, tiny place in this vast, unimaginably big universe.
So, too, in some ways I became comfortable with my daily job and very nice two-bedroom apartment over-looking the park, and my economic car, and my summer playing Ultimate Frisbee and the occasional trip east to see family and friends. I still pushed myself – did things outside the mainstream, and reached for changing the world, making it better – but it didn’t seem as urgent somehow. Not until I lost that daily job and then the bottom fell out of the economy.
In his article, Wolfe remembers visiting NASA just a few months after the historic landing and finding a former member of the heat-shield team working – as a tour guide. Says Wolfe:
“A baffling wave of layoffs had begun, and his job was eliminated. It was so bad he was lucky to have gotten this stand-up Spielmeister gig on a tour bus. Neil Armstrong and his two crew mates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, were still on their triumphal world tour … while back home, NASA’s irreplaceable team of highly motivated space scientists … was breaking up, scattering in nobody knows how many hopeless directions.”
How loudly that seems to resonate now. It’s as if all of us, working away in our jobs in whatever our chosen (or not chosen) professions had been through the ’80’s, ’90’s, and early ‘aught’s, were the driving force behind the rise to prosperity of a minority of greedy fellow citizens, and now (while some of them are still on a triumphal world tour no less) we find out that we are dispensable after all.
So, where to from here? How can a nation, entrenched in an unjust (and unnecessary) war, beleaguered with economic collapse from the private sector to the housing market right on up to municipal and state levels, still in many ways reeling from pain it hasn’t dealt with from the recent wounds of terrorism (what’s the statute of limitations on grieving for a sneak attack?), find its way back to pulling together and uniting behind a single, albeit risky, cause?
Can we mark this auspicious anniversary with a sense of pride, but one that is as forward-looking as it is reminiscing? Let us think of extraordinary things – ventures of great importance with lofty goals including the uncharted terrain of justice, fairness, and equality – and let us gather around the drawing board, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.