The Moon Plus Fifty Years

The Moon Plus Fifty Years


Leonard Zwelling

It is more than likely that more people who read this blog were not alive when the moon landing occurred fifty years ago on July 20, 1969, than were. I was about to turn 21. I watched Neil Armstrong descend to the lunar surface on a small black and white TV in the living room of my rented apartment in Durham, NC. I was finishing the course work for my undergraduate degree at Duke over the summer and my parents had stopped in to visit me. We watched in wonder. They could not have imagined what they were seeing. I had been expecting it my whole life. Walt Disney had told me fifteen years before that this had to happen. I believed it.

In a terrific summary of that year and the competing forces that gave birth to that Cold War success of the lunar missions by America, Dennis Overbye, in a special insert to Sunday’s NY Times (July 14) in a piece he calls “Slouching Toward Cosmic Destiny” makes the point that despite all of the excitement of that day in July 1969, many Americans opposed all the expense of the Space Program at the time and, as is obvious, after 1972, we never got back to the moon. The youngest surviving member of the group that walked on or orbited the moon is now 83. They are dying off. The survivors of man’s greatest adventure are disappearing.

What is also important to remember is how tempestuous the time was when the lunar landings took place. Political assassination had become common with the deaths of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

American cities had burned.

The Manson murders had occurred in LA and just in case you might have forgotten, the United States was bogged down in a useless war in Southeast Asia that was to kill 58,000 Americans and far greater numbers of Vietnamese. While the lunar landing provided humanity a brief respite from chaos, once the three astronauts were back on Earth, chaos returned. Watergate was just three years later.

Humans all over the world marveled as one species on that day in July of 1969. Now, we cannot come together as Americans about anything. Even a World Cup victory in women’s soccer is turned into a political statement.

We Americans are riven by our beliefs about immigrants, wealth, health care, race and each other. It will take more than a trip to the moon to put us back together as a nation. What would it take?

There are those who believe that some sort of homogeneity of our people will do the trick. These are the people filled with xenophobia desperate to keep people from other countries out of America. This is silly as it is immigrants who have made our country great. The last thing the country needs is to keep the very people who will give us a competitive advantage on the rest of the world from becoming American citizens. Yes, it must be done legally, but it can be made hard or easy. I suggest that the easier we make it, while deporting those non-citizens who commit crimes here, the better we will all be.

It is destiny that the next presidential election will be divisive. Mr. Trump thrives on creating we-they scenarios and even does so while keeping dictators in the “we” column. The Democratic Party needs to rapidly cull down its lengthy list of contenders and get down to the top five or six and then to the one. That one will need all the backing of all the factions of right thinking America who believe that even if some of Mr. Trump’s policies are not outrageous (he hasn’t damaged the economy), he is outrageous and we cannot have an outrage in the position of commander-in-chief.

His latest tweet that singled out four new women members of the House as immigrants when three of the four are native born and the fourth is a naturalized citizen is just the latest in the ridiculously ill-informed manner in which this administration chooses to govern.

Another fifty year anniversary is upon us in August. Woodstock. During our trip to Santa Fe we met with a woman who was my age. She had photographed much of what happened in the fields of central New York in August of 1969 along with rock and roll, drugs and mud. I was in the concert promoting activity then and had predicted Woodstock was going to be a problem. I carefully stayed away having seen Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore East the weekend before Woodstock before flying back to Durham to finish my degree work.

I could not imagine the logistics of a venue in central New York hosting all those bands and all of those people let alone that awful weather. I had friends who had tickets and never made it up the Thruway due to the traffic jams.

Woodstock may seem like the Holy Grail to some, but to many it was a mud fest that only proved that a group of young people watching a rock concert could get along sufficiently so as not to kill anyone. Of course, then came the Altamont concert a few months later and the Hells Angels did kill someone during the Rolling Stones’ set.

For those who look back fondly at the 1960s, perhaps it was just their youth and the music that really deserve the nostalgia. The politics were awful and the war was worse. I do not long for 1969 despite some memorable events that transpired then.

I am more focused on now, especially since I have a grandchild.

If there was one thing that the moon landing made clear, it is the fragility and loneliness of Earth. We need to take better care of ourselves back home even as we venture back to the Moon and on to Mars in the years ahead. It may come to pass that someday humanity may have to abandon Earth for the stars (see Interstellar). But we should not be anxious to have that day come sooner. Remember, the last time we were on the moon, we left nothing but footprints.

The preservation of Earth will be a major issue in the 2020 race for the White House. The “missile gap” of the 1960 election has given way to the Green Revolution of today. Or it needs to.

We should celebrate the moon landing. It was a singular achievement in a tumultuous time. But there is plenty of tumult now to warrant our attention and much of it is caused by Mr. Trump. Perhaps he might like to volunteer to go to the moon after he is voted out of office. He can afford the seat from Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. I think. We would know for sure if he would release those tax returns.

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