Shakespeare wrote about it. He penned the following for Juliet to say in her balcony scene with Romeo. When the young lad attempts to promise love’s allegiance to her by swearing by the moon, Juliet chides him:
Swear not by the moon! The inconstant moon? That monthly changes in her circled orb? Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
Here, Juliet accuses the moon of being “fickle” because it changes shape all the time. ‘Twas not the case, as we now know. The moon’s inconstant shape exists ONLY because of the Earth’s inconstant shadow, courtesy of the sun.
There have been jokes about the wonders of the light and dark comparisons of night and day. Here in Texas, the Aggies of Texas A&M University are the butt of many jokes. One states that the school’s Engineering and Astronomy Departments joined forces to build a spacecraft themselves and will blast off with the hopes of reaching the moon, but in order to beat the blazing heat from the sun, they plan on launching at night.
I’ve looked at the moon many times in my life and many times since July 20, 1969. I was ten years old that day; that incredibly auspicious day. It was summer and in the small South Texas berg where I had been born and raised, mothers were making their kids do the exact same thing my mother did. She made me stay in that summer night. Usually my mother was concerned about my incessant TV habits in the evening, but this time she was encouraging my viewing. For that night, history would be made: Neil Armstrong was going to be the first man in history to walk on the lunar surface.
Yes, it was exciting. This was indeed a first. But I was well aware of science fact. Oh sure, I’d seen the 50’s era, schlocky science fiction movies about landing the moon; the scary, evil aliens who lived there and the green cheese surface on which they dwelled. But my reasoned and contemporary view of space exploration (even my sophomoric view) still difference from that of my parents. My mother and father both in their early 40’s on that date, were in sheer awe of what TV images the night would bring. But unlike my parents, I completely believed it was possible that a man walk on the moon. A lunar landing was hardly improbable.
I was raised smack dab in the middle of the space race. The Russian’s had Sputnik and Yuri Gregorian; the United States had John Glenn and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. I knew as much about NASA as I did the characters on “Jonny Quest” and “George of The Jungle”, my favorite Saturday morning cartoons. My life had been unduly influenced by NASA and the space program. Why, that very morning after I woke up, breafasted on bacon, eggs and a cold glass of Tang.
Four days earlier on July 16th, a Saturn 5 rocket blasted off from Cape Kennedy, with three men perched inside it’s nose cone. But tonight, an ordinatory space mission, would become extraordinary.
We watched TV as a family that night, gathered around the hearth-like hutch which contained a 20-inch Zenith color TV. Daddy turned off the lights in our maple panelled den to further the effect. I remember my mother admonishing him because he’d switch channels from Walter Cronkite on CBS to Jules Bergman, Science Editor for ABC News, hoping to get the best picture possible.
The landing of the Lunar Module or LM also known as the Eagle, though NASA afffectionately called it the LEM, was a slow painstaking process, but considering the historical nature of the even, even the most impatient man garnered every ounce of forebearance he could.
At about 4pm Texas time, we heard those magic words transmitted over a squeaky microphone uttered from 98-thousand miles away.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Houston was the very first word uttered from the moon. Take that, Dallas!!!!!!!
And that word and those that followed, ushered in a new era of space exploration. I remember my father saying, “Mars is next!” as he toasted the grainy TV image with a Scotch and water.
Then, the two astronauts inside the LEM, prepared to make history again by walking on the moon. I can’t imagine what Niel Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin must have felt when the looked out the craft’s tiny windown. Michael Collins, was forced to stay in the command module or Columbia as NASA referred to it. He would orbit the moon a few times while his astro-collegues walked on the moon.
Shortly after the LEM landed, Buzz Aldren grabbed the mike and said this:
Shortly after landing, before preparations began for the EVA (extra hvehicular activity), Aldrin broadcast the following:
This is the LEM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.
He then preformed Holy Communion privately. This was never made public and with good reason. At the time, noted Atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hare had brought a lawsuit brought had filed suit against NASA because the crew of Apolla 8 read from the Book of Genesis. Asa result, NASA demanded that their astronauts refrain from any kind of religious activities while in space. Aldrin told no one about his plan for Communion–he didn’t even mention it to his wife and it was years before his actions were made public. Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster (the Houston suburb which serves as home to the Johnson Space Center). His communion kit was prepared by his church’s pastor, the Rev. Dean Woodruff. In fact, the Webster Presbyterian Churc still has the chalice Aldrin used on the moon, and commemorates the special Lunar Communion each year on the Sunday closest to July 20th.
There was a five hour time lapse between the LEM’s landing the moon walk. The plan was for the astronauts to sleep. As you can imagine, that was the last thing on their minds and instead, they elected to prep for the moon walk.
And shortly before 1o pm (CST), Armstrong began his very long descent down a very short ladder. He had some trouble getting his life-support system held in that huge pack on his back, but managed to squeeze through. Onced situated atop the ladder, he tugged at a D-Ring beside the ladder and out popped a stowed TV camera attached to one of the LEM’s tripodic legs.
Everything he did from that point on was televised.
Then, Buzz Aldrin exited the craft and became the second man to walk on the moon’s surface. He and Armstrong planted a flag and attached a plaque to it which read, “”Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Then, the pair frollicked in the moon’s gravity…1/6 that of the Earth’s. They also collected some lunar soil samples and picked up a few rocks.
Afterwards, they climbed up the ladder and back into the LEM and prepared to jettison off the moon’s surface to rendezvous with the Command Module orbiting overhead.
Next stop: Earth.
I don’t remember much after Armstrong and Aldrin re-entered the LEM. I do remember the three astronauts were quarantined for health reasons aboard a Naval war ship which helped retrieve them after splash down.
But do I remember almost everything that happened the night the Eagle landed. Shortly after Aldrin closed the hatch that night, I walked outside to join my father. He was in the backyard staring up at the moon. He didn’t say anything; he just put his arm around me and continued his upward gaze. I looked up, too.
I wondered if the two Men On the Moon were looking back at me. I had the urge to wave, but didn’t when I remembered that earlier, Walter Cronkite had informed us that we were watching the lunar events unfold along with more than 600-million people around the globe. In the vast configuration of things, I felt very small in a vast sea of humanity that I would never fully comprehend. That night, the Earth suddenly felt so huge and the moon seemed so very,very tiny.
And then another rare event happened that night; the child in me took over and logic left. And out in the darkness of my backyard, under my father’s gentle caress, I no longer looked at the moon as a orbiting satellite of discovery and exploration. It had reverted back to being simply the moon; the greyish, white round thing up in the night sky; the very thing that a nursery rhyme insisted a cow had jumped over.
And the Man In It smiled at me just as he always had, but on the evening of July 20, 1969, he seemed a bit happier.
I instinctively knew it was because he had company over for the very first time.