There have been so many 50th anniversary observances in the past nine and a half years and they each remind us how turbulent, exciting and unpredictable a decade the 60s was. Think of it: we saw John Glenn’s first orbital flight, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the march on Washington, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, the Northeast power blackout of 1965 and the six day war, Woodstock (and I have to add, the Red Sox’ Impossible Dream season of 1967) all within the span of 10 years. And behind all of these, the civil rights movement, the music of the Beatles, the anti-Vietnam war movement. It was an inspiring, scary, momentous and exhilarating decade that shaped the lives of so many of us.
As we approach the end of the current decade, it seems like we’ve saved the best fiftieth anniversary for last. For today, we observe the anniversary of the greatest adventure in the history of human beings: the first manned lunar landing.
Like everyone who remembers that July day, I have vivid memories of where I was sitting, what I was thinking and how the different members of my family, spanning three generations, reacted to the event. As with so many of those events, the memories of our personal connection with the event are often uppermost in our minds. But, this mission was about so much more than our own memories.
As I have watched and read the retrospectives of the Apollo 11 mission, one thought keeps coming back to me. The flight to the moon was so complex, so complicated, so technologically advanced and yet it was performed with computer technology that is dwarfed in scientific terms by the cell phone in the pocket of a 12 year old. Just imagine.
Each point of the mission was fraught with danger and uncertainty: achieving orbit in the first place, “trans-lunar injection” as the spacecraft left earth orbit, the docking with the lunar module, the separation of the LM from the spacecraft, the flight to the moon, the landing, the “moonwalk” itself, the lift-off from the moon, docking with the command module and the reentry and splashdown. So many times, the commentators told us that the mission depended on that moment. And each test was passed. When the lunar landing took place, there was less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining. When Apollo 11 returned to earth, it did so right on target. The measurements so precise and the planning so exact.
And, for me and so many others, the moment we remember best was the booming voice of Walter Cronkite who summed it all up by saying simply; “Man on the Moon!”
The real story is that behind the beauty, the astounding pictures and sounds, lay the intelligence and abilities of human beings. The foundation of any scientific advancement that was achieved by the findings of this flight and the others before and after it is the reality that we have been created with minds that are able to accomplish what seems to be impossible.
While sitting on the surface of the moon in the LM, astronaut Buzz Aldrin took a moment to perform the rite of communion and asked everyone listening to his voice to say words of thanks.
We should do that every day.
The first blessing we say during the daily Amida, the first among the list of petitions and statements of thanks to God focuses on our wisdom. “You had endowed the human being with wisdom and give us knowledge…”We ask God to continue to imbue us with such wisdom and remember that it is this wisdom which sets us apart from other creations and provides the hope for our collective future.
It is 50 years since a human being stepped on the moon for the first time. I personally believe that it was worth all of the expense and all of the dedication for so many reasons. And, I believe that we should continue that type of exploration because it is in our nature as human beings to stretch the horizons of our learning.
But, it is also necessary for us to look inward and to seriously consider why it is that a creation which can send a person to the moon, can understand the depths of the ocean and the intricacies of the human mind can not do what we have dreamed of as a species not just for the past 50 years but for so many beyond that.
Neil Armstrong took “one small step” and the world took a “giant leap”. If we could be inspired by the flight of Apollo 11 to take small steps towards mutual respect and concern for all, it would be a giant leap for all. The world stood together on July 20, 1969, celebrating this momentous accomplishment. May we see the day when all of us, all human beings, stand together as one once again.