In July of 1969, while friends and neighbors all throughout the ‘hood were upgrading to color television, my old man clung stubbornly to our behemoth black-and-white Zenith, around which our family room was positioned. Pop in his harvest gold vinyl La-Z-Boy, Mom at her sewing table, cutting on the bias. Me, elbows on the shag, eyes riveted as Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Excursion Module.
Mine is a generation that assumed the prone position before the almighty Zenith as astronauts strapped themselves into a tiny capsule and blasted off into outer space with a half-million pounds of rocket thrust at their backs.
Too young to remember Mercury and ‘Godspeed, John Glenn,’ but as NASA and I grew up, I became a Project Gemini true believer. When all systems were ‘go for EVA’ and Ed White became the first American to walk in space, I remember thinking if this doesn’t work, the man will be legitimately and literally lost in space.
Back then, the question arose: Are astronauts heroes?
Seems to me heroism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder is not certain that space work was any more — or less — heroic than schlepping through the jungles of Southeast Asia, M16 in hand, battling communism. Do dominoes fall in outer space?
Guns, butter and “Go, flight.” The America of my youth wanted it all.
I built models of the Saturn 5 rocket, complete with detachable Service, Command and Lunar Modules. Framed color photos of astronauts and their Gemini Titan II launch vehicles graced my bedroom walls. A toy space capsule into which my foil space-suited G.I. Joe would fit, remains among my most treasured boyhood Christmas gifts.
Memories of Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection come back as a bright line milestone. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to fly to the moon, then took turns reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve, 1968.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”
Seven months later, when Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, my parents’ generation marveled in wide-eyed awe, while mine took it in stride. With the sum total of an 11-year lifetime of space program experience, it was exactly what I expected. The video images of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon 50 years ago this month was the generational equivalent of the photo of the sailor kissing the girl on V-J Day in Times Square in 1945.
As one who built a career practicing the art and science of perception management, I remain impressed by the ahead-of-its-time public relations of America’s space program. Effective movement of hearts and minds starts with a great story, followed by vehicles to effectively deliver it. Vehicles like live color television broadcasts from outer space, glossy 8 by 10s of astronauts and their rocket ships, suitable for framing, neatly cocooned in cardboard so they won’t bend in the mail, sent to any kid with the temerity to ask for one.
Presidential speechwriters who recognized that this president, of a new generation to whom the torch had been passed, was ideally suited to lead us into a new frontier. To lay down the gauntlet. To choose to go to the moon. Not because it was easy. Because it was hard.
It was the perfect geomagnetic storm. The emergence of mass media, genuine scientific exploration and a generation of Americans who were not convinced when LBJ and Nixon said we were winning in Vietnam. When they were 11, our parents had war bonds and victory gardens. We had Tang, Teflon and scratch-resistant lenses. We believed in Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
I don’t know if we need heroes today, but I’m pretty sure we need purposes and tests. Broad, lofty, poetic ones. We need spacecrafts named Eagle, Enterprise, Challenger, Intrepid and Yankee Clipper, or their equivalent. We need to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God.
America’s space program allowed me and my generation to transcend our parents’ monochromatic expectations and come to better realize the vastness of human potential. In living color. These days, when the moon is full, I sometimes find myself gazing up at the Sea of Tranquility with a genuine sense of ownership. I had faith in the mission and bought into the dream. All systems were go.
I’m so grateful I got to experience the American space program at such an impressionable age. It clearly left an impression.
Matson’s column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com