We are in the middle of celebrating a memorable moment in the history of humanity: a human being arriving on the Moon.
All kinds of archival footage is being played across the various platforms of media to commemorate this gigantic event in our common history: we made it from the fragile, island home that we call Earth, to an even smaller island that circles us, illumined magically by phases, even spectacularly, as if on cue, in full moon on Tuesday.
We looked; we gazed; we wondered; we dreamed; we visioned; we planned;we invested; we built; we dared; we risked; we went. All were critical parts of a process to move from a wonderment as we looked up from our gravitational holding place to a journey to that sphere that occupies the night sky and our imagination. We chose to go to the Moon, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard…..as President John F. Kennedy envisioned. Beneath that drive pulses the lure of discovery, of a curiosity about our world, in a word, wonder that abides in our soul.
What strikes me, in our reflection on this event on the Moon, that occurred some fifty years ago, it that it was a “we” moment for humanity, not just another “USA” national pride chant, but a global moment where everyone identified with the human spirit that drove the quest. The three NASA astronauts, upon return to Earth, toured the world to the cheers of everyone, shouting, exclaiming, “We did it!”, a collective “Yes we can!”.
What could possibly unite this world today in a similar way? What might unite our country in the midst of our separation, our adversarial posturing? Seriously and sadly, I don’t have a clue. The last time, we experienced a national “we” moment was when we were attacked, evoking a hot, burning revenge reaction. Like you, I felt it. I lived through it. I don’t want to relive that, as it was a huge cost that keeps on collecting a fee in human lives. Could there be a positive event that could bring us together? I wonder.
I find myself going back to my younger days, when innocence was fresh and smelled like a new car, full of promise and adventure. Is that a mere memory, or could it bring hope?
My memories of the space race came early. In the West End Sears in a tiny book department, I remember choosing a book of a photographic hype of the Mercury 7, the seven chosen few, my new heroes displayed in their space suits and shown training for their flights in odd machines that simulated G forces and weightlessness. That book filled my time and imagination as America prepared to put a human into space.
I carried that passion to my first grade classroom at Tull Waters Elementary in south Atlanta. It was in that classroom that I learned to “duck and cover” in the case of an atom bomb, a pall that was exacerbated by a forced march home to make sure we could make it in event of a bomb. I am sure there are psychological studies filed away somewhere on the effect of such drills, but I have never seen them. Guess I am afraid to look!
Counterbalancing that fear was the pervasive hope of space exploration. It was a hope that was pervasive in that time, a bold lean into a future of progress, unrestricted potential. My teacher, Miss Nail, allowed me to listen to the launch from a gray particle-board institutional radio in the back of the class. That became my role in all my classes as the word had obviously gotten around about the Galloway kid who was obsessed with space. I was the first grade Walter Cronkite delivering my version of “That’s the way it is.”
That was my first experience of a teacher bending to meet me in my passion, sponsoring my native curiosity and nurturing my discovery as a child. That would be the hallmark of the good teachers I encountered along the way, as well as the bar to which I held all who would assume that noble profession in my orbit. Wildly, my niece, Gracie Galloway teaches today in that same school building, now called by another name, Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP. Gracie embodies that same spirit of teaching that I experienced and valued in my own journey in school.
Thanks to my teachers, I followed the astronauts in their missions, from Alan Shepherd in 1961, John Glenn’s three orbits in 1962, to the last, Gordo Cooper in Faith 7 who spent a day and a half in orbit. This initial foray would lead to Gemini’s two-man team, space walking and docking, and then, on to the Apollo mission to the Moon.
All those memories came flooding back as PBS aired a superb video chronicle of the race into space. It was a time of competition as the Soviet Union was hell-bent on beating us in the technological game of tag. And pride was on display as Aldrin and Armstrong placed an artificially flying flag on the Moon’s surface, the red, white, and blue against the gray, barren landscape.
Again, the surprise was the global celebration of this human achievement. As the trio flew from country to country, they were regaled as heroes of the human race, lifted up on our collective shoulders to celebrate both our technological prowess as well as the “right stuff” that showcased the human character of courage.
My own moment of meaning came when Armstrong took control of the lunar module, guiding it by manual control, some half a mile farther than the planned landing site. His split-second decision to “fly the thing” rather than go through the automatic landing sequence, risked the whole mission. Knowing that he was running low on fuel, indicated by the on-board sounding alarm, he nonetheless scanned the lunar surface and coolly improvised a new site. With the words, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”, Armstrong allowed the folks in the control room to breathe again. That moment of decision was defining for me, Armstrong’s command of the lunar module.
They then proceeded to venture out, dancing in the moment of exploration that was truly out of this world. The paradigm-shift happened with the mystical view of our planet from the surface of the Moon., our tine planet set in the vast blackness of space. The astronauts clearly felt the shift, but we were able to vicariously experience that new perspective as well. Like the discovery of fire, a new sliver of consciousness was birthed.
There still was the hanging question of firing the rockets to propel the craft back into orbit to rendezvous with the circling command module. It was telling to see the recently recovered memo written by speechwriter William Safire for President Nixon to release should the astronauts be marooned. Fortunately, that piece of poetry went into a gray filing cabinet, exchanged for a bottle of celebratory champagne.
So this is our celebration of our signature moment of technological advancement coupled with the human spirit of discovery. How are you celebrating this special mark in our history? Any thoughts on how might we recover the sense of unity that points toward the spiritual truth of our connectedness? Especially in the face of efforts to divide us, how can we move beyond a mere jingoistic focus on things that separate us, and rather, reframe our existence as a human race. It would be a giant leap, indeed, but worth the jump. Our future seems to hang in the balance of that question.