‘On that train of graphite and glitter Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris Well by ’76, we’ll be a-ok
What a beautiful world this will be…’
-Donald Fagen, I.G.Y
Even though it was a rare, sunny late afternoon outside, I went into a dark but comfortable movie theatre to see the new documentary on Apollo 11. It lived up to all the acclaim…some new and never released film from NASA, remastered along with a remixed soundtrack results in a powerful, compelling look at the first manned moon landing 50 years ago this summer. Even after all these years, one is still struck and the power, majesty and complexity of that endeavour.
It had the desired affect on me, as it took me back to July of 1969, a few days before my 13th birthday. For many of my generation, this was the culmination of growing up fascinated and consumed by the early days of space exploration, or the ‘space race’ as it was called then, since a great part of it was the competition between the United States and the Soviet space programs. For me, that was secondary. I grew up watching every liftoff, every mission, every splashdown and recovery, from Mercury to Gemini and Apollo. And now it was finally going to happen. Man was going to set foot on another celestial body. On that day, we were visiting family friends at their cottage just north of where we lived, but my parents promised we would be home just in time to watch the moonwalk on TV ( remember, there was no PVR, VCR or streaming online). I think I spent the entire hour and a half trip home pestering and pleading with my dad to get there on time.
We did, and like nearly everyone else on the planet, we watched that grainy, black & white but nevertheless spellbinding live broadcast as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. As i watched him and Buzz Aldrin dance around the lunar surface, I kept running outside to our front porch to look up at the moon. I had seen it so many times before, but this time, it was different. There were humans from Earth walking around up there. It was magic.
The future had arrived!
It wouldn’t be long before we were making not only regular trips to other planets, but our whole society would be transformed, much like Donald Fagen described in that song. We’d all be living in futuristic living quarters and moving about in flying cars, just like the Jetsons. Thanks to the space program, we were developing products and industries that were making are lives better, more productive. We would have instant communication anytime, anywhere. We could get anywhere in a fraction of the time it used to take. Everything we would need would be at the touch of a button, instantly accessible and readily available. Movies like 2001 A Space Odyssey and TV shows like Star Trek showed us a world that was, literally, just around the corner.
Well, fifty years later, I’d say we’re still a long way off. Yes, technology has changed things. Yes, we have instant access to information, communication. Technology has cured or treated diseases that were once considered incurable or untreatable and developed safer modes of transportation, conservation, etc. But space exploration didn’t really progress the way one thought it would since that summer of 1969. Four moon landings would follow Apollo 11 before the novelty finally wore off. The early days of the Shuttle program were exciting but didn’t come close to matching the interest and intensity of the early days. In fact, space shuttle missions became routine and taken for granted, with the exception, unfortunately, of the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Yes, we did build a permanent space station and yes, there are plans to go back to the moon and Mars. But it seems, at least to me, that we should have been to every planet in the solar system by now. And here on Earth, we shouldn’t be still driving vehicles at require gas. I guess some things evolve slower than others.
What I think we miss most of all, and also became apparent while watching Apollo 11, was the incredible, galvanizing moment it had become for the entire world. Everyone on Earth literally stopped what they were doing and gathered anywhere they could to watch this incredible achievement. For once, the singular focus was something that was pulling us together, not all the other things that were tearing us apart. That’s not to say mankind hasn’t accomplished great things since then, but it seems today that any great step forward, either socially, politically or anything to improve the human condition, is met with skepticism or outright resistance. Instead of celebration, we spend more time in our divided camps arguing and insulting each other on various social media platforms..you know, that great product of the internet that was meant to bring us closer together?
Something else to consider…while technology has made a huge difference, we must also be careful not to surrender to it. We can’t solely rely on cars, trains or planes to fly themselves. A good case in point comes from the Apollo 11 mission, which is also mentioned in the film. A few moments before the landing, Neil Armstrong noticed the onboard computer’s landing target was a bolder strewn area right next to a crater. Needless to say, the landing would have been a catastrophe. Armstrong then took manual control of the lunar lander and, with about 30 seconds of fuel left, guided the lander forward to a smoother spot a few feet away to a much smoother touchdown.
Sometimes, you gotta take the wheel.
So, fifty years later, I look forward to that next giant leap for mankind, whatever or wherever that may be. I hope it’s as exciting and as inspiring as Apollo 11 was and I hope it will again unify a world that is in dire need of unification.
What a beautiful world it will be.