The death of Neil Armstrong yesterday reminded me of my collection of autographed glossies of astronauts, and what a telling and bygone artifact they are.
When I was a kid, I wrote letters asking for autographs to many people -- baseball players like Willie Mays and Tom Seaver, TV stars like Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett and Freddie Prinze, even news broadcasters (yes, like Geraldo).
None of this surprises the adult me, since I have maintained those passions and even worked in some of those fields (I gave up baseball playing after 8th grade). But the astronaut ones are uniquely poignant. It wasn't a profession I ever envisioned myself pursuing -- instead it was the closest thing to a pure folk hero we had, and I can't think of a modern equivalent, despite the fact we've had nearly a half-century to improve technologies.
For people around my age -- too young to remember when JFK was shot, too young to appreciate who MLK and RFK were when THEY were shot, our first National Shared Moment was actually a happy one, Armstrong's moon landing. How many happy shared moments do we have these days? (Bin Laden's killing is certainly not in the same category. Rejoicing over someone's death is not parallel to reaching for the stars.)
I was 8 years old in 1969. I just looked up what time Armstrong made his descent to the lunar surface: it was 10:58 pm. My parents roused me from my bedand brought me to the living room, where we had a black and white TV set with "rabbit ears" antenna.
My friend, journalist and book author Sheila Weller shared her experience of that moment on Facebook:
A humid, ominous, black-skied summer day in NYC. I was disentangling from a ridiculous 2-year-long relationship and planning a run for Ibiza. My beautiful best friend Liz Young (SO poiitically radical, she stuck up for [China's] Cultural Revolution!) and her boyfriend Mike Herr (who had just written the all-the-rage Vietnam epic DISPATCHES) ducked into the Limelight on 7th Ave South and watched...a man walk on the moon!
Sheila's post inspired many friends to retell their stories -- one was in an airport in Geneva and saw people waving miniature American flags watching TVs; another was giving birth in a hospital, another saw a baby in England taking its first steps on earth. We would remember this forever. Man was on the moon! Anything was possible!
My family saved the next day's newspaper - only unloading it when my brothers and I cleared out my parents' house forty years later (the newspapers sold for more than their furniture did). My friend David Steven Cohen still has his and shared it online:
Caught up in the era's celebration, I wrote to NASA and got back autographed pictures of these explorers. The one up top is Apollo 12 -- Chuck Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon, who have the unfortunate fate, fame-wise, of falling between the Apollo 11 crew that first landed (Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins) and the Apollo 13 one that became legends for NOT landing on the Moon and nearly perishing in space, that became a Hollywood feature film.
|Nixon and Apollo 13 survivors Swigert, Lovell and Haise|
Oddly my collection includes Apollos 9, 15,16, and 17 -- but not Armstrong & Co. or the Apollo 13 crew. Maybe those were "sold out" or maybe someone filched them over the years.
That year, the Mets went on to win the World Series, proving indeed that anything was possible. I was in the stands and ran to the field after, collecting some infield dirt that I still have in a jar. My moon rocks.
Rereading this, I ticked off the number of things that are ancient history in today's world: black and white TVs, rabbit ears, all-the-rage Vietnam epics, Cultural Revolutions, Kodak, box cameras, Limelight, Mets World Series winners, allowing fans on the field -- even newspapers you want to save.
But none comes close to the missing dream, aspirations, and heroes embodied by the space program. By the time we finished landing on the moon, it had become so mundane that the only spectacle that roused interest was Alan Sheppard hitting golfballs in the zero-gravity atmosphere.
NASA currently has a robot "Curiosity" trolling Mars, which should seem an amazing achievement, but has none of the impact a human being's experience would. We can marvel at the images, and applaud the science, but it seems disconnected from our lives, and instead of waving flags we're making interweb jokes like this one:
Unlike some of his fellow explorers who shed the earth's bonds, Neil Armstrong never went bonkers, never exploited his fame or acted like he'd done anything special. That in and of itself is notable these days, sadly. But it's not all a downward spiral, thank goodness. For the last thought about Armstrong and how things change, here's writer Armistead Maupin:
I met this nice man around a campfire last year in Santa Fe. As the moon rose in the sky, he talked, with extraordinary modesty, about landing on it. Later, when I introduced Chris to him as my husband, he smiled as if this were the most ordinary thing in the world. It occurred to me that there's been more than one 'giant leap for mankind' since 1969.