The moon followed me on a long drive home Sunday, first as the roundest white spot in a swirly afternoon sky, then as a lantern in the night.
It was about three-quarter’s full, similar to its look on July 20, 1969.
Has any human being ever left behind a greater monument than Neil Armstrong?
I was 12 years old and about to head for a weeklong church camp in the remote woods of Western Oregon. The timing was excruciating, because I was going to be one of the few who wouldn’t be watching TV that evening. Along with the rest of the world, I’d already sweated out the lunar module’s descent -— 1,000 feet, 500 feet, 200 feet, and then, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
By the time Armstrong climbed down a ladder several hours later, I was at that blasted camp.
“They look like robots,” the camp director told us kids at dinner that first night, reporting what he’d heard by telephone and confirming that humanoids were walking extraterrestrially. We cheered, and when we went outside I suppose we looked at the moon in a new way. I can’t remember.
Camp life ensued, and when I got home the crew of Apollo 11 had already begun its 21-day quarantine back on Earth. I always felt like I was playing catch-up when it came to the first moon walk — I saw grainy black-and-white snippets on replay and heard the recording of Armstrong’s first-step words.
Still, my child’s sense of history told me it was the best thing that had happened to Earthlings in my lifetime. Forty-three years later, I still believe that.
What was the lasting benefit of the Apollo missions to the moon? Was this a vital step for space travel? The future holds the answers.
In the early ’70s, I waited in a long line to see some of the moon rocks brought back to Earth. They looked like … rocks.
In a way, Neil Armstrong never came out of quarantine, because he lived the rest of his life mostly out of the public eye.
For now, the legacy is not tied to what has transpired since, but the event itself.
It was a time of turmoil. America may be politically polarized today, but back then we had the Vietnam War to fuel the flames of dissent at the end of a decade of cultural revolution and political assassination. Just two days before Armstrong’s “one small step,” Teddy Kennedy had driven off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, drowning his female passenger and his presidential potential.
In the midst of it all, America successfully undertook the greatest of journeys, and the whole planet celebrated.
I hope someday something will top that, but it hasn’t happened yet.