There are many things that I still remember about July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing and mankind’s small step/giant leap onto another world. After all, a day like that is kind of hard to forget, even after a half-century.
Curiously enough, whenever I think of that day, the first thing that pops to mind is me lying on a slide, angled southward, in the back yard of my family’s old house in Menno. It was around 8:30 p.m. on that Sunday night and I was on that slide waiting, just waiting; the Eagle had landed a few hours earlier, and at that moment, I was biding time before I ventured indoors, locked my attention on our television and let Walter Cronkite guide me through a transcendent turn of the page in human history.
On that slide, I was staring at the waxing crescent moon, sailing high in a conveniently clear sky and the deepening blue of the growing twilight. I was probably doing what millions of kids and adults were doing just then: staring up at that moon in a way we never had before trying mightily to spot any sign of life in the Sea of Tranquility (or, for that matter, orbiting above it).
What followed about an hour later was a grainy, ghost-like, back-and-white spectacle that was soaring and humbling. It still gives me shivers just thinking about it.
But now, it’s also more than a little bittersweet.
What I really think back on, I guess, is a 10-year-old boy lying on a slide and watching the universe literally open up before him. Just then, the possibilities of what might happen in my lifetime seemed limitless. All the science fiction tales, all the dreaming, all the miracles and mysteries — it all seemed possible at that moment.
But that 10-year-old didn’t know what the future really held in store.
He didn’t know, given the thousands of years that the moon had ruled our nights, how quickly the public would lose interest in lunar exploration.
He didn’t know that we would stop going to the moon just a little more than four years later — and, to this point, never return.
He didn’t know that heading to places like Mars would remain unrealized 50 years later.
He didn’t know how short our reach would remain or how muddled our dreams of sailing among the stars would become.
And yes, sometimes I feel robbed. The wonders that could have been, the amazing things we could have seen — all never realized.
But life is like that: full of the unpredictable and the unknown. And sometimes, it stings with colossal disappointment.
I think of all that 50 years later as I look up at the moon through much older eyes.
But I also detect a new sense of anticipation — albeit with qualifiers — as we again seem to be approaching another precipice of opportunity in space.
There’s talk of going back to the moon. NASA announced last month that it intends to put the first woman on the moon in 2024. Unfortunately, the space agency currently doesn’t have the budget for it.
There’s also talk of going to Mars, which would surpass our lunar ambitions by a thousandfold. But the public doesn’t seem overly excited by this prospect: According to a poll by Pew Research, only 18 percent of respondents believe going to Mars should be NASA’s top priority. This is quite the reverse of the situation in the 1960s when America’s “space race” with the Soviet Union drove us to the heavens with the public fully invested in the competition.
We’re seeing private enterprise entities like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX increasingly take a lead role in potential space travel. That could mean commercial space flights and space tourism. But it would be expensive and, for most regular human beings, stunningly prohibitive. (For instance, NASA estimates that a commercial trip to the International Space Station would cost about $58 million a ticket. So, start saving now.)
The consolation is that at least we’re seeing now the possibilities that I thought we would have reached decades ago. Better late than never, I suppose.
The moon was a goal for mankind for as far back as we could remember. Fifty years ago Saturday, we finally got there — but never reached beyond it. Perhaps that’s at long last ready to change.
At least the 10-year-old in me can always dream.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.