“The Eagle has landed”

The air will be thick today with I-remember-where-I-was reminisces, so I’ll just get mine out of the way up front: I was in the backseat of my grandparents’ car, parked on the side of the road next to a cornfield somewhere near Gladwin, Michigan, listening to the landing.

CapComm: We copy you down, Eagle.

Armstrong: Houston, Tranquility Base here.

Armstrong: The Eagle has landed.

CapComm: Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

Armstrong: Thank you.

CapComm: You’re looking good here.

Armstrong: Okay. We’re going to be busy for a minute.

Aldrin: Master arm, on. Take care of the [static] I’ll get this [static]

Aldrin: Very smooth touchdown.

One of my very earliest memories is space-related: Much of the neighborhood went outside and stood on a street-corner, looking skyward for a glimpse of Sputnik as it transited overhead. One of the adult men bellowed something along the line of “If those Russians try anything, we’ll kick their ass,” and his wife shushed him.

Dwight Eisenhower dismissed Sputnik as a “football” and was unimpressed, but Americans didn’t like the thought of an insolently beeping football they could do nothing about passing overhead, and Eisenhower was forced to establish a space program; he wisely put it under civilian, not military, control. Just a couple of years later, of course, President Kennedy launched the race to the moon.

I was part of the Sputnik generation of schoolchildren, educated with a strong bias toward what, today, is called STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. I am grateful for that, though I no longer practice engineering; analytical habits of thought transfer easily to, and enrich, other interests.

The challenge of going to the moon was vested with both romance and existential urgency, and meeting it was a triumph of science, engineering, logistics, and politics. That we are unable, today, even to dismiss a cheap demagogue and proto-fascist like The Donald is a pretty good indicator of how much America has changed in the last half-century.

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