Monday, July 20, 2009

40 Years Ago

If you have been anywhere near a television or radio in the last few days, you could not have failed to notice a very important anniversary being spoken of. Forty years ago on July 20, 1969, man landed and walked on the moon for the very first time. What a monumental event in human history. The moon has been a nearly limitless source of curiosity and inspiration ever since man first looked to the night sky and beheld its beauty.

I was 15 that summer. I was home from the seminary between my sophomore and junior years. Home was with my grandmother and mother in a humble little home on Summer Street in Pekin. I was a space buff in those days as was nearly every other guy my age was. Our heads were filled with the adventures of the astronauts as flights were launched with amazing regularity in those days, all in preparation for the landing of man on the moon. Finally, in July of 1969, only a few months ahead of President Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade, a Saturn V rocket bearing a crew of three lifted off for the surface of the moon.

You must remember that those days were days without cable TV. Stations did not broadcast 24/7. At the end of the broadcast day (somewhere around midnight), the station would play the national anthem and then sign off till the following morning. Only three networks existed namely NBC, CBS, and ABC. There were no other choices. The launch took place in the middle of the week and everyone was glued to the TV. Hourly bulletins brought news of the intrepid three as their spacecraft headed for the moon at an amazing 35,000 feet per second.

Sunday, July 20, dawned warm and humid as is typical for Central Illinois at that time of year. My mother and I went to church that morning where prayers for the safety of the astronaut were recited. We hurried home to our Sunday lunch and watched the coverage of the landing. It was mid-afternoon when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface of the moon. I remember there wasn't a car moving outside. You were tuned into either Walter Cronkite on CBS or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC. We never watch ABC News so I don't remember who anchored their coverage! We, like a great deal of the country, watched Walter Cronkite and astronaut Wally Shirrah narrate the daring landing. I will never the famous words, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Walter Cronkite became very emotional and I remember the three of us sitting transfixed as to what was happening.

For my grandmother, it was an amazing moment. She was born in 1899, before the common use of the automobile. Orville and Wilbur Wright had yet attempted to fly a flimsy machine called an airplane on the shores of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Electricity had yet to reach millions of Americans. Horse and buggy was still the main transportation of most American city dwellers. Now, on this July, 1969 afternoon, she witnessed man's landing on the moon. What marvels she had witnessed during her years on earth!

Once the crew was safely down, I went into our small backyard and looked up. The moon was directly overhead having risen sometime earlier in the morning. I just stared at the tiny white orb floating in the hot July afternoon. Two men were up there on the surface of the Moon! I remember being quite moved even as a 15 year old, realizing the historic moment I was witnessing and was a part of thanks to television.

Late that night, the ghostly image of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder from the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) flickered across our TV screen. And then more famous words were uttered. "That's one small step for man. On giant leap for mankind." The foot of a human being now rested on the surface of another terrestrial body! We watched with rapt attention as both men bounded across the lunar terrain. We took pictures of the TV screen in hopes that we could capture the image of men on the moon clearly enough to identify. There were, of course, no VCR's or any other electronic devises for the ordinary person to record the moment. It was an amazing spectacle.
Forty years have now passed along with many years of human history. One of the symbols of the exploration of the Moon was that of world peace. Viet Nam was raging and it didn't seem as though it would ever end. I actually thought that I might have to go and fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Riots on campus were commonplace in protest over the war. Charles Manson was a household name. Two Kennedy brothers and one Civil Rights leader had been gunned down during the decade. The world was ready for peace!

While amazing technological progress has emerged from our trips to the Moon, that elusive peace has escaped human existence. In fact, in some ways, the world is even more tumultuous than it was 40 years ago. Still, there is a certain magic and awe in those moments of a much more innocent era. There is majesty in beholding God's creation close up. We all were there on the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin in so many ways. It was a moment in which to pause in wonder at the universe and its Creator. I am blessed to have lived in that moment in time. We now have the responsibility to work toward that peace that we all had hoped for just 40 years ago.