Occasionally, we step back, shake off the stupor of daily annoyances and world weariness, and surprise ourselves with a sense of sheer giddiness at discovering what it means to be an American.
The last time may have been the bicentennial celebration of 1976, when a country beset by war, economic problems, civil strife and political corruption glanced back 200 years and decided there was more good than bad.
“You could dismiss the whole thing as infantilizing: ‘birthday parties,’ after all, were for children,” wrote historian Rick Perstein in “The Invisible Bridge,” his account of the mid-1970s. “There turned out to be something so exuberantly spontaneous about the way people felt their way through the festivities — like the riders of the subway car in tense, violent Boston who broke out in a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday, America,’ and the revelers who found themselves dancing — ‘spontaneously and jubilantly,’ Elizabeth Drew observed — when Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops ripped into a boisterous ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ ”
Today is another such day.
In another turbulent time marked by sharp political, racial and cultural divisions, Americans — many of whom were only children at the time — are observing at least a hint of child-like captivation at observing the lunar landing’s half-century mark.
As historian Douglas Brinkley noted, Jules Verne may have got a lot right in his 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon.” He predicted the country that would go to the moon. He accurately selected the launch site. Even his calculation about how long the flight would take was correct.
But it would remain science fiction for the next 104 years and probably longer if not for a Cold War rivalry that began with the Soviet Union’s affront to American ingenuity with the launch of Sputnik in 1957.
Next came an audacious gamble by President John F. Kennedy that the country was willing to devote billions to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” and stay with it “before this decade is out.”
Legends do not geopolitics or even charismatic presidents make.
It is the stuff of heroes.
So it was with Apollo, a program that relied on technology that seems not only primitive by today’s standards, but dangerous in its own era. The lunar capsule killed the Apollo 1 crew on the launchpad in 1967. The service module almost stranded another crew in deep space three years later.
Between the Dec. 21, 1968, launch of Apollo 8 and the Dec. 19, 1972, splashdown of Apollo 17, America’s space program was bravery on display — all of it depicted on live television with a running narrative offered by Walter Cronkite, Jules Bergman and Frank McGee.
l Apollo 8’s Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders orbited the moon for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1968. They transfixed the world with a television broadcast — all the while not knowing whether their engine would fire, free them from lunar orbit and bring them home.
Privately, flight director Chris Kraft told Susan Borman the crew’s chances of returning successfully were no better than 50-50.
When the critical engine performed flawlessly on Christmas morning, Lovell reported in: “Please be informed: There is a Santa Claus.”
l Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin electrified the world on July 20, 1969, when they manually piloted the lunar module over a crater and selected a suitable landing spot with about 17 seconds of fuel left.
But their fate rested with a single lunar module engine to lift them from the lunar surface and return them to the mother ship.
The White House readied for the exigency of a marooned lunar crew .
“These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man,” speechwriter Bill Safire prepared for President Richard Nixon.
l As depicted in Ron Howard’s film about the 1970 mission “Apollo 13,” a team of engineers partnered with crew members Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert to bring their stricken craft home. Here’s one measure of what they endured. Due to the need to conserve electrical power, they drifted for days in temperatures so extremely cold that even after their capsule survived Earth reentry at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Navy frogmen were greeted with a blast of Arctic chill when they opened the capsule’s hatch.
l After piloting America’s first manned flight in 1961, Alan Shepard found himself grounded. An inner-ear aliment, Meniere’s disease, left him subject to episodes of dizziness and nausea so severe he could not pilot a plane, let alone a spacecraft.
Unwilling to accept that fate, Shepard underwent experimental surgery in 1969. It worked. He was restored to flight status and initally would have flown on the doomed Apollo 13 flight — until he was reassigned to Apollo 14 in 1971.
At 47, Shepard became the oldest man — and the only one of the original seven Mercury astronauts — to walk on the moon.
What was Apollo’s legacy?
Was it Anders’ “Earthrise” photograph, which inspired enchantment with the frailty of our oasis in space?
Was it achieving the dream of our young president after he became martryed in Dallas, Texas, six years before the landing?
Was it the technological dividends — cellphones, medical advances, computers — the country reaped?
Or was it possibly the missed opportunity in the billions that otherwise might have been devoted to better schools and addressing social ills in this country?
Leave that to a final analysis, to be written decades from now. Suffice it to say on this day 50 years ago, conservatives and liberals, war protesters and hard hats, fans of John Wayne and Paul Newman, black and white, young and old shared one thing together:
They were gazing up. — M.T.