Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot upon the moon, passed away the afternoon of Saturday, August 25, 2012. The flags of the nation flew at half-staff in remembrance and there were outpourings of tributes. And yet, only half the people alive today have any memory of his first step on the moon. The rest hadn’t even been born yet. It is also noteworthy that no one born after 1935 has ever walked on the moon. The last person to set foot there was in December, 1972. A total of 12 people walked on the lunar surface. With the death of Armstrong, only 8 of them are still alive. The youngest of those who remain is 76 years of age.
In July, 1969 I had just moved from Oklahoma to Ohio with my parents. My father was in the Air Force and he was about to leave for Viet Nam on his second tour of duty. Come Autumn, I was going to begin Junior High—what today is called Middle School. I had just become a teenager in March.
The lunar module separated from the command module in lunar orbit shortly after 1 PM Eastern Daylight Time on July 20, 1969. At 4:18 PM Eastern Daylight Time, it touched down on the surface of the moon. My memories of the event have faded with the years. I recall that I was in a department store with my mother and watched it on a television there in the store.
About six hours later, Armstrong opened the hatch on the lunar module and began his descent to the surface. He put his boot in the lunar soil at 10:56 PM.
My family was in the living room at my great aunt’s home, so my mother, my father and my great aunt were watching the event on television. My great aunt had been born near the end of the nineteenth century. In her lifetime, she had seen the invention of the airplane, the advent of radio and television, the jet aircraft, the atomic bomb and now this. My father remembered when electricity first came to his parent’s farm house when he was a boy.
My great aunt found the whole thing barely comprehensible, so much so that she had a hard time really believing it. For my parents, it was certainly a wonder. But they’d imagined such a thing for a good portion of their lives, having grown up on movies and science fiction stories of people traveling to the moon. They were big fans of Star Trek, which had only recently ended its original television run.
What truly amazed my parents about the event was the fact that, as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder toward the lunar surface, he pulled a D-ring which activated a television camera. In all the movie versions of the moon landing that anyone had seen, in all the science fiction stories they had read, none of them had imagined that people on Earth would be able to watch the first man step onto the lunar surface live on television. It is estimated that 600 million people saw that moment: one of the largest television audiences in history. That means about 14 per cent of the human race watched Neil Armstrong make history in real time.
I had watched the launches and followed the space program all my life, having been born the same year that the first satellite was launched into orbit. I had been fascinated with astronomy and all things space from my earliest memories. And so for me, it was not so much a wonder as it was simply the way things were supposed to be. From my perspective, Neil Armstrong’s steps seemed inevitable. That humans should fly into space and set foot on the lunar surface was exciting, but not nearly as amazing as it was for my great aunt or my parents.
Like most children my age, I imagined that the future in space would be like what I saw in the books and television shows that I consumed. I believed that the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights revealed what would actually happen in my lifetime.
Sadly, of course, moon bases, vacations on Mars, and hotels in giant spinning wheels orbiting the Earth remain unrealized. And the reason those things never came to be had nothing to do with their feasibility. Instead, it all came down to the money.
Since the end of the lunar program, NASA’s budget has remained at about one half of one percent of the federal budget. If the United States had chosen to invest even half the money Americans spent just on beer between 1972 and today, the level of human activity in the solar system might well have matched or exceeded what was imagined in the movies.