Confessions of a Weekend Nerd

Apollo. Fifty years.

We landed on the moon. I look back on it now and I am amazed. I understand some of what went into it, how challenging it was, the amazing level of commitment and dedication, and how unlikely it all might have been. As my sense of history developed, long after high school, I began to see all the incredible things people do, especially here, as sort of willed accidents. By that I mean, someone or a group of someones come up with an idea of something to do, a big something, and put it out there. Others sign on and they all move in that direction. The fact of the matter is, any of a thousand things can derail it and the idea never gets off the ground. So many things have to come together to clear the way, to maintain support, to collect the resources, that the notion that anything actually happens becomes a kind of miracle. Often, it is just timing. The idea gets all the funding and commitment and talent collected before any of the myriad roadblocks effectively arise.

The space program is one of those. When you look back at everything we could and intended that did not happen, it becomes obvious that it was an unlikely thing. By the end of the Sixties, and into the Seventies, large groups had begun challenging the whole project as a pointless, expensive, wasteful vanity project. There were more important things to do here on the ground, why are we spending so much on this when there are hungry people, when there are infrastructure projects going begging, when this or that or the other thing are so much more important. And it mounted and finally, like the nibbling of ducks, dragged the behemoth down and nearly stopped it. Nixon made his fateful choice for a shuttle rather a Mars mission and we seemed to “settle” for a considerably more modest off-world presence. Then, of course, all the funding arguments about the shuttle reduced its range and capacity and while still a remarkable instrument it was far less than the dreams of the Kennedy-era enthusiast wanted.

Life and politics happened and NASA trudged on to do still amazing things, but at a much-reduced level of imaginative possibility. A lot of Americans lost interest.

Now the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing is upon us and many people over a certain age are indulging in the “where were you when” nostalgia, and probably rewriting a lot of personal history. By the enthusiastic remembrances on exhibit, one has to wonder, if that many people had been that thrilled at the time, how did the space program ever lose ground?

My friend and colleague Allen Steele is the only person I know close to my age who was at that level of enthusiasm back then. I have no doubt he stayed home from school to watch the reports on television. He saw things I never at the time even knew happened, exciting things which, if you weren’t paying close attention, you missed. My parents were excited. Some of my classmates were thrilled but they didn’t watch.

Where was I when Neil Armstrong stepped out of a very flimsy can to walk on another world? Home, because it was one of the rare times my parents decided to keep me out of school.+ Dad made me watch.

Yes, I said “made.” Because, to be perfectly honest, the whole thing by then bored me out of my skull. Tell me about it after it happened, thank you.

I felt guilty about that later, until I heard about Robert A. Heinlein’s testimony before Congress in which he chastised them for doing such a pitiful P.R. job with the space program. He saw what had happened, they had turned it into one of those incredibly lifeless, innocuous educational films we paid no attention to in school. Bad animation, endless hours of a cartoon capsule and “live” audio of back-and-forths between Gemini and Mission Control, and the oh-so-serious commentary of people like Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman, with the occasional guest commentator like Arthur C. Clarke.

The truth is, this was a difference between the “how do we do this” crowd and the “what are we gonna do when we get there” crowd. I suspect the latter outnumbered the former, and when the answer was “collect some rocks and take some pictures” it must have rippled like a soporific grade-school lecture through us. They might have done better had they done more of the “what are we going to do next” sort of thing that popped up far too seldom, although when it did was made to sound as exciting as someone describing how they would lay new carpet.

Even back then I knew people who believed it was all fake. Challenging them about it, I sensed that really they wanted it to be fake. They didn’t want it to be real, because then they would have to pay attention to it, if only to complain about it. And then there are others who don’t want great things done. Their opinion of human beings is low, that we are more scourge than anything, and great things only sustain a set of illusions we don’t deserve to have. This is nothing new. This is a modern version of an ongoing sense that all the great things have already been done, far in the past, and that the modern world (pick your period) is a shadow of former greatness or a corruption of what we might have been. An Eclessiastical View, if you will. Then someone comes along to propose a new great thing and the struggle begins between the will to do it and those who just can’t bring themselves to let it happen.

Hence my opinion that great things are willed accidents.

But they happen. Often enough to give the rest of us aspirations, a sense of potential.

Growing up, you learn—presumably—that your desires and aspirations rise or fall on what has gone before. Why was I bored by the space program? Because it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I wanted to be on the moon already, with the space stations already built and the mission to Mars already underway or done, and the whole space-centered future I’d been reading about since I was old enough to choose my own books in place. I was impatient. This stuff, because I was not an engineering nerd, didn’t affect me. I was the kid who was more interested in how the new cars looked rather than how they ran. I was a weekend space nerd.

But this was true about most things in my life and I have to wonder how many others were the same. I was always more interested in the next thing than in the thing in front of me. I was in a hurry to get on down the road, because—

Well, the future for me was always better than the present.

Now a curious phenomena has overtaken me and possibly thousands if not millions of others. The next thing is actually in the past. The next thing we should have done in the wake of Apollo and didn’t is now the future I was more interested in then and has now picked up where it should have left off in 1974. So Apollo has been resurrected in my imagination as a seriously amazing cool thing.

So I’ve seen the movies, have been reading the new books, and kind of glorying in this great thing that happened when I was a kid. Belatedly, I’m a fan. And NASA is building a new rocket, on par with the old Saturn V, and we have plans to return to the moon (which makes sense only in terms of rebuilding the network and infrastructure to do and maybe as a way of rallying the national imagination, but we really should be going to Mars), and suddenly we have a kind of post-Columbian* enthusiasm for doing the thing we walked away from in the Seventies. I’m studying the period now with the adult interest that might have made a difference back then and caused me to pay attention despite the mind-numbingly boring coverage.

Because if asked, back then, I would never have said it was not a desirable thing to do. I would have been thrilled that we had done it. And the suggestions at the time that maybe we shouldn’t struck me as absurd. Come the weekend, I was there. I just didn’t want to pay attention to the doing. Which is a mistake. Willed accidents do happen, in spite of the kind of ambivalence to which I refer, but that ambivalence can rob them of their full potential and sometimes derail them completely.

Doing it now seems to be acquiring a new kind of enthusiasm. But it would never happen if it had not already been done.

For the record, then, I want that future. Always did. I want us in space. I want bases on the moon, colonies on Mars, ships going hither and yon, and a striving toward the outer edge. For many reasons I want that, but first and foremost I want it because that’s where my imagination finds replenishment. Because I see that as the cool thing to do. And the doing will make us better.

Happy anniversary, Apollo. Ad astra.

 

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*In the sense that it was fully half a century to a century after Columbus made his first voyage before nations really got behind the whole effort to cross the Atlantic and establish colonies.  There does seem to be a timelag connected to these sorts of enterprises. Mind you, I make no comment here on the desirability of what happened in the wake of Columbus, but the exploratory impulse on its own is, in my opinion, an essential and basically good part of human society and character.

+ Since posting this, I have been reminded that the landing was at around 10:00 PM ET, so I would not have been kept out of school to watch. It may have been the splashdown for which I was kept home. This just goes to show how disconnected I was at the time and the way in which memory plays tricks on us.

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