The day we landed on the moon—and it was very much a “we”— I was almost 13. The world was a very, very different place then in almost every way imaginable. The accomplishment of landing men on the moon and bringing them safely back to earth was nothing short of staggering. People understood that at the time.
I was fascinated by the space program, and especially Apollo. I’d been too young to really understand what Mercury was all about. The Gemini missions were interesting, but it was Apollo—it was that reaching for the moon—that seized the imagination. I think maybe Apollo 11 was the last manifestation of American innocence and naivete. There was a great deal of controversy about it, because of the cost and the desperate need for improvement of the American standard of living and its extension to a much larger slice of the population. We’re still working on that one. Or, some are, and some are fighting tooth and nail against it.
Even so, at the time the moon landing felt like an accomplishment all of us as Americans had taken part in. Many of us had no doubt that it was the pioneering first step that would lead to space stations, the exploration and settlement of the solar system, and the eventual next great leap into the unknown—this time, of interstellar space.
For my part, I was sure we would have installations not only on the moon, but Mars, by the time this fiftieth anniversary rolled around. Lots of people have spent a lot of time trying to explain why that didn’t happen; why in fact the opposite took place. America was bored with the moon by the time the final Apollo mission returned to earth. We’d done it, sure enough, but then we’d gone back five more times (successfully) and there weren’t any earthshaking discoveries or advancements from that. There were, of course, but very few people could see them at the time.
It was painful to watch the space program splutter to a halt over the next 30 years. On that July day in 1969 that was inconceivable.
There are of course those who insist the moon landings were faked. A slightly different conspiracy theory says we found aliens on the moon, and they warned us off further space exploration. Then there is the refinement of that paranoia, which says that some of the aliens actually befriended us, and helped us establish secret bases on the moon and Mars. They have to be secret of course. Otherwise it wouldn’t be any fun.
The cynical, frequently paranoid American public of 2019 may or may not buy into any of the conspiracy theories. But, at least until the last year or so, they had largely dismissed the idea of the exploration of the solar system, at least as something that was likely to happen in their lifetimes.
There are still the visionaries, of course. Space is slowly becoming privatized. As with so many other things, Heinlein was here years ago. Actually decades ago.
I don’t know if these latter-day visionaries, under the bumbling, ignorant “leadership” of the individual currently occupying the White House will be able to return to the moon in a few years, and reach Mars a few years after that. I do know that the reality of climate change, which is (far too late) settling into the consciousness of the average American, makes it more imperative that we not keep all our eggs in the basket Earth. How that can happen on any meaningful scale in the next century is beyond me. It would take a global push of the magnitude of the American push that was Apollo.
To a twelve-year old kid, though, on that astonishing July day fifty years ago, it seemed not only possible, but inevitable. The sky, it seemed, was hardly the limit. As I said, a lot has changed since then.