Astronomy & Science · history · Inspiration · Politics

Apollo, Where Art Thou?

Neil Armstrong

Apollo, Where Art Thou

I always surge with pride when reflecting on the history of our space program.  I grew up in south Florida, close enough to the Kennedy Space Center to be within the shadow of NASA, but not close enough to see quality rocket launches.  As a child, I fondly remember seeing many shuttle launches from our house, but really could only see the smoke trail ascending to the sky.  Still, it filled me with fascination and fueled my imagination.   To think there were people riding atop that rising column fueled my curiosity.

Things are quite divisive today, and am disappointed because they don’t need to be.  I’m not a sociologist that explain why there are growing splits between everyone, but we can see them everywhere it seems.  Perhaps it’s the constant news coverage, which causes politicians to be obsessed with polling numbers, and to compromise is to appear weak, which creates a “my way of the highway” approach.  I’m sure the political action committees come into the picture.  Establishing a force to be reckoned with, because if you don’t vote their way, they will fund a competitor for the next election, and it appears to be all about being re-elected.  Is it the rising division in the top earners in the workforce?  It’s probably a mixture of all the above, and more elements thrown into the mix.

This is not a political blog, nor do I wish to delve into politics.  In light of events in Charlottesville, and growing audacity of white power/Nazi groups (which I received a recruitment flyer the week after the last election, which was the first time getting that filth in my mailbox, which sickened me), I thought I would post something that would in my own small way try to divert the attention and play a microscopic unifying force in a time of growing divides.

Apollo, we need you now more than ever.  I love watching programs about NASA, and actually watching an episode of “Space’s Deepest Secrets” I recorded a while back, and always surge with pride when watching documentaries of the golden age of space flight.  The astronauts were larger than life and modern heroes.  Regardless of social class, political affiliation, race, or even nationality, the struggle of spaceflight was a common unifying force.

For me, the Apollo 11 flight was one of the great unifying forces in our history.  NASA formed in the late 1950s, and formally introduced the Mercury Seven astronauts on April 9, 1959.  These seven men, instantly heroes for so many, including me, would form the core of astronauts that would conquer space flight and eventually fly to the moon.  I almost burst with pride when I read or reflect on what they achieved.  So many people working for a common goal.

To call the 1960 a tumultuous decade is quite an understatement.  Alan Shepard flew ‘Freedom 7’ on a suborbital flight in January, 1961.  An instant hero, and President Kennedy immediately challenged us to fly to the moon, land, and most importantly, return safely to the earth by the end of the decade.  Throughout this time, the Vietnam War escalated and divided our nation.  There was still racial segregation, and President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. would all be assassinated.  The country was divided, probably the worst since the end of the Civil War, but we were still making progress.  De-segregation would take hold, regardless of the plight of those who embraced prejudice and racist mindsets.

The morning of July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins emerged from the prep building on their way to the van to transport them to the fueled and waiting Saturn V.  As they waved to the crowd look on at this historical moment, for a brief moment, the country grew close.  The three flew atop the most powerful machine built by humans.  Thundering into the sky on the way to the moon.

The news feeds were grainy and not very clear, but as Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module, the world watched.  Such a moment, never experienced in history, unified the world.  The two men would walk on the moon, gathering rocks and soil for study, and set up experiences.  Fighting was pushed to the background.  People forgot their squabbles for a short while.  We left the earth, and landed on another celestial body.  A first in human history.  Completely unprecedented.

The Apollo missions drew the world together.  For a brief moment in time, it didn’t matter who you were, or what you were, we were all as one.  We now had a new perspective, a new cosmic perspective.  To look back upon the earth as taken during the Apollo 8 mission, and to see what we could all accomplish, we grew closer.

Perhaps the history of NASA does not apply for the events of today as much as it used to.  We sent so many Space Shuttle flights into orbit, deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, and even worked together with other countries to design and build the International Space Station.  Yet we still are fighting each other, arguing over religion, and have seen rises in tension across the globe.

Apollo where are you?  We sure could use something that is bigger and better than all of us.  To see that we are all just one species, flying through the dangerous cosmos on our small little planet.  A pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan described.  We need to be unified once again.  We are all on the same team, and could accomplish so much by working together instead of trying to be better that everyone else.

As the crowds thin in Charlottesville and we all mourn the losses, we should look for opportunities to learn and grow.  Instead of trying to stereotype or to think of being right versus wrong, we need to look inward to be the best person we can be.  Sometimes we can do this on our own.  Sometimes we need to have something that occurs that unifies.  Apollo was one of the great unifying events in our history.  Across the globe, people watched in fascination as the crew of Apollo 8 first flew around the moon, when Apollo 11 landed, and when Apollo 13 against all odds, came home after the accident.  Moments in time, fading away into history, and hopefully will happen once again.

We need something that transcends our petty struggles and arguments.  That puts everything into a larger perspective.

I’ll let Carl Sagan conclude things…

Carl“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994


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