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Sunday Essay: Walking on the moon

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

WHAT a wonderful coincidence that the moon looked especially surreal in the days leading to July 20. It was large, almost golden, and hard to miss—as hard to miss, in fact, as all the stories about how men first landed on the moon 50 years ago.

For much of the week, the American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sounded over the moon in his Twitter account, sharing facts and jokes about all things lunar. “If the chefs ever prepared food on the moon, their dishes would surely be interesting, but their restaurants would have no atmosphere.”

He tweeted that four billion years ago, in its earliest moments, the moon was 20 times closer to the Earth than it is today and, being that much closer, appeared 400 times larger in the sky. Can you imagine what that view would have been like? There would have been the matter of finding a safe spot to watch the skies from, since the tides, DeGrasse Tyson wrote, were 8,000 times higher at the time. (Also, it wouldn’t be until more than three billion years later that humans first appeared.)

I’ll admit that reading all those stories about the moon landing was a kind of escape. These stories inspired, for one. They were a reminder of what a spirit of inquiry, focused effort, and big dreams can accomplish. Oh, astronomical resources too. The Planetary Society estimates that NASA spent some $28 billion in 13 years for the Apollo program, which translates to about $288 billion in 2018 dollars.

“The effort and the commitment of brainpower and money, and the glorious achievement itself, shine as an international example of what people can do when they set their minds to it,” John Schwartz wrote in The New York Times, in an essay about whether solving the climate crisis could be this generation’s next moon shot. “The spinoff technologies ended up affecting all of our lives.”

Today, for instance, scientists can accurately tell how far we are from the moon using a combination of lasers, telescopes and the mirrors that Neil Armstrong placed on the surface of the moon all those years ago.

Call me a hopeless optimist but it doesn’t seem impossible to make all the changes in engineering, political will, corporate priorities and human behavior that are necessary to fix the climate crisis. That is, if we can all agree that the crisis exists, or even that the moon landings did take place.

Really wrap your head around this idea. Fifty years ago, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. They did more than “bounce around to collect rocks.” They (and all the others involved in this herculean effort) pushed the limits of human understanding further. A third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission, Michael Collins, stayed in orbit in the Columbia spacecraft, some 60 miles above the moon’s surface.

He later told The New York Times that he didn’t begrudge Aldrin and Armstrong’s walk on the moon. He was far too focused on doing his part to make the mission work, given all the risks and unknowns that had to be faced. For instance, Armstrong and Aldrin had barely 30 seconds of fuel left on the lunar module when they landed because there were more boulders on the landing zone than they had anticipated. When they finally made it back to Columbia, Collins couldn’t remember what they first said to one another. Mostly, he remembers all the goo and grime that the other two astronauts had on their suits from the knees down.

Three days later, they were all back on Earth. Collins will turn 89 this October.

The moon landing 50 years ago is not my generation’s big moment. Our song isn’t “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Moon River” (which DeGrasse Tyson points out is “cosmically irrelevant”). It’s “Walking on the Moon” (1979) by The Police, in which a young man walks home from his beloved’s place so happy that it’s as if he’s taken a walk on the moon and his feet, “they hardly touch the ground.”

What an amazing achievement that was, that actual walk on the moon. May its memory inspire us all for years to come.


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