Apollo 11: One Proud, Faltering Step

Nearly everyone who was alive will remember where they were and what they were doing on the evening of July 20, 1969. An estimated 500-600 million people, in all parts of the world, watched one of the greatest achievements in human history unfold before their eyes: a man, soon followed  by a second man, stepping onto the surface of the Moon.  They saw, for the most part, fuzzy, blurred images through an oftentimes garbled transmission (the anchorpersons constantly forced to frantically ad lib when audio or video transmission or both would be lost), but that didn’t really matter. Most people were fascinated in spite of the poor picture quality…they were fascinated that this moment was happening at all.

Seconds after stepping onto the Moon, Neil Armstrong made a short statement that would become one of history’s most famous, often quoted, often misquoted, lines. He intended to say “That was one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Due to the shaky audio feed, the “a” was lost somewhere in the ionosphere; those of us on Earth heard “That was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (a contradiction). However, everyone understood what he meant…even if had uttered total gibberish they would have understood him.

Nonetheless, it was an enormously expensive “one small step” because it cost America 3% of its Gross Domestic Product over the next eight years (equivalent to $120 billion in today’s money). There’s much to praise yet much to condemn here and Armstrong’s inadvertent contradictory statement was quickly overshadowed by contrary opinions over the entire mission. Our pride in landing a man on the Moon was almost immediately followed by criticism of Project Apollo and of NASA .

While the situation in Vietnam disintegrated, Watergate eroded our trust (already badly strained) in government, the nation sank further and further into recession and while OPEC‘s first oil fiasco besieged us, NASA seemed to be amassing bigger budgets for projects that went nowhere. In spite of the technology (from the very computer that you’re using to read this to that of your car), a direct result of space exploration, the fact that we bought this technology at an outrageous price cannot be ignored. A proud memory could go only so far until it’s replaced by the bitter realities of the present.

In any event, as I recall it, it was a great time to be alive; a great time to be an American, if only for a moment…throwing caution to the wind of controversy.


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