On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, followed shortly after by Buzz Aldrin, while Michael Collins maintained a solitary lunar orbit. The world watched. Meanwhile, the mother of Vivian Strong, shot dead by police at fourteen, was grieving. It’s the age of the Cold War space race, also Stonewall. Demonstrators in the U.S. and worldwide call for civil rights, an end to war, racial justice, housing and labor reforms. The U.S. has been at war with Vietnam for fourteen years at this point, and it will not end for another six. Millions dead, scorched earth. It’s the age of the Biafran war in West Africa, The Troubles in Ireland, a Lybian coup underway, the Weathermen gathering in Chicago, the Rozariazo in Argentina, the first U.S. draft lottery since WWII about to begin. John marries Yoko and Chicago Police officers shoot Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, among others. Medgar, Malcolm, King: all have been assassinated, now. Blind Faith rocks Hyde Park, Franco closes the border, The Stones release Let it Bleed. In a talk to teachers delivered that year, James Baldwin opens with an acknowledgement of the moment at hand. Let’s begin, he says, by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. The following is a morning meditation on this moment and its lasting relevance to ours, culled from readily-accessible details about the Apollo 11 mission.
One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation, one remarked.
Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said.
Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted. It got only two inches in.
There was fear the flag would topple on camera or fly off. It did neither
in the moment. I am not sure where it is now. Salute, phone call, prayer.
Then a sixty-meter walk, photographs. Core samples collected: here’s soil,
plus rocks. Three new minerals discovered, later found also on earth. Now
a plaque. We come in peace, if not in peacetime. There was a speech prepared
in the event of disaster; the ritual would mimic a burial at sea. Each, of course,
had their own, If I should die–
Meanwhile, one orbited the moon alone. Not since Adam, he said, regarding
the extremes of his solitude. Although, it’s worth noting that accounts of Adam
suggest he was surrounded by a kingdom of earthlings preceding his arrival, not
to mention sunlight.
The return was fraught, there was a long list of disaster scenarios. It landed
upside-down, for example, but there was a plan for this. Then came quarantine,
then the parade, prayers of thanksgiving, cheers.
It is possible to be awed, as Abernathy was, by a magnificent achievement,
while simultaneously enraged that it was pursued while other relatively simple
requests were denied. Care for the sick, shelter: for children, fathers, veterans,
grandmothers. Food, some relief for the caged. Some end to the caging of bodies.
Some recognition of the unnamed dead. To ask, voice hoarse with rage and grief,
who commands this mission, who makes this leap? Just as it is possible
to frame a gorgeous picture of a newborn and place it on a distant desk,
in a corner office, to profess love and mean it, but never change a diaper,
never walk a wailing body back to peace.