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Moon landing provided escape in turbulent ‘60s

By Ernie Williamson / Special to The Bulletin

I was among 530 million people worldwide watching televised images from the lunar surface as Neil Armstrong took “… one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

That emotional day, July 20, 1969, was the kind people of my generation remember forever. We know where we were, what we were doing and who we were with.

As a 22-year-old recent college graduate, I was filled with pride. My country had taken the lead in the space race and delivered on a commitment President John Kennedy made eight years earlier. The U.S., he proposed to Congress, “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Later, in a speech at Rice Stadium before 40,000 people, Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The 1960s, prior to the landing, had been a tumultuous decade.

We had endured the JFK, RFK and MLK assassinations, years of war in Vietnam and violent protests in our own streets. The successful Moon mission provided a respite.

For a few days it was great to be young, to be an American, to be an example to the world, and to dream again. The future appeared bright and shiny.

(Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick accident happened during the mission, but our minds were focused on events thousands of miles into space. Lucky for him, I’d say.)

With memories of that emotional day in mind, I went to see “Apollo 11” at a local theater. The documentary features never-before-seen footage and audio recordings that take you straight into the heart of NASA’s most famous mission.

As spectacular as it is, the film triggered some strange, hard-to-identify emotions in me.

Sure, there was wonderment at the precision of the mission and pride at seeing the American flag planted on the lunar surface, but there was also an equal amount of sadness.

Why was I choking up a bit? What was this sadness about?

Maybe it’s me. The movie reminded me of a happier time. Those days were filled with promise for both me and the country. Now, 50 years later, I suffer from a spinal cord injury and am dependent on a wheelchair. I no longer can do what I want; I can only do what I am able.

Or maybe it was the sight of all those behind-the-scenes “geeks” in their uniform of the day; short-sleeved white shirts, narrow black ties and pocket protectors. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin knew it was these scientists and engineers who made the mission possible. And the astronauts trusted them with their lives.

How things have changed. Today we disregard science in favor of conspiracies pushed on social media.

Or maybe it was hearing the voice of Walter Cronkite as he described the intricacies of the mission to an anxious public. I miss his soothing, authoritative approach. I would love to hear what he would say about the endless screaming and debating that passes today for news on television and radio stations.

Or maybe it’s the realization that July 1969 was an aberration. Those days of harmony, unity and achievement did not last long.

We have returned to disorder in the world and division in this country. And, whether it is immigration, health care or climate change, our beloved country no longer seems to have the will or the ability to tackle, in Kennedy’s words, things that are “hard.”
I know what some of you are thinking. I am one of those old guys complaining about how much better life was back in the day and that things really are much better now.

I hope you are right. That would make me happy.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)