In the late sixties and early seventies, young children didn’t have to be taught to count backwards. We did it along with the TV, and as soon as the astronauts blasted off, we did, too, careening around the room like ping pong balls.
Kids could wear their enthusiasm right out in the open, but even adults were excited about our astronauts. They were the coolest of the cool, true blue Americans, ready to go places humans could only dream of going before. Names like John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin… these men meant far more to us than any movie star or even the Beatles. Smiling kids, many with model rockets in hand, spoke confidently of going to space when they grew up. And okay, it was a long shot, but for the first time it was actually possible.
We had put a man on the moon. We could do anything.
That one event unified us in a way that nothing else has during my lifetime. We were doing something daring, grand, and glorious—and we were doing it together.
Lunar missions are on the calendar again, although they’re called something else now. Instead of Apollo, the program is fittingly named Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the moon. And it’s a more well-thought-out production. Instead of sending up a single rocket that only does one trip there and back, like we used to do, first we’re setting up a whole space station in lunar orbit. Called Gateway, it will receive many missions and also later serve as a stopping point on the way to Mars.
It’s the way the moon missions should have been run from the beginning, but if you weren’t there, the thing you need to understand about the space race is that it was a deadly serious competition. We gave it our all. There was no way we were going to spend any extra time putting together the best possible system and then watch the Russians get there first. Not when quick and dirty would win the race. Granted, we were left with nothing but moon rocks afterward, but dang it, we’d proved that Americans were the best of the best. Our gallant knights had swept the tournament, and we all hoped the Russians stayed up at night gnashing their teeth over it.
I wouldn’t trade anything for those early memories, but I’m also glad we’re doing it more intelligently these days. I’d love to see a new generation learn to count backwards to the exciting roar of rocket launches. And I’ll be watching, too, cheering our brave astronauts on.
If you want to view the original moon launch, you can do that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9tIX5-dq3E. Even today, watching it still makes me a bit misty-eyed.