We used to could put a man on the moon.
I know. I saw it happen. Of course, I know people who also saw it happen who insist that Neil Armstrong and his buddies were not on the moon, but out in the Arizona desert somewhere. Today’s populace didn’t invent stupid. I knew lots of people who believed that Live Atlanta “Rasslin’” was real and that the space program was fake.
The space program. I grew up with it, starting when I was 5 years old. The weatherman on TV would report that the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, would be passing overhead at a certain time of night, and the whole neighborhood would be standing on the sidewalk, hands shading their eyes from the glow of the stars, I guess, peering into the heavens — scared to death of what the Russians had accomplished.
We had a hard time getting a rocket off the launching pad at Cape Canaveral in the early days.
Finally, the Russians put a dog into space. We countered with a chimpanzee.
They sent up a cosmonaut who orbited the Earth seven times. We barely got Alan Shepherd out of the Earth’s atmosphere for a 15-minute voyage, lift-off to splashdown.
We were in the midst of the Cold War. We were, as a nation, dedicated to making sure that our way of life was superior to communism. We were not at war with ourselves, yet. The “join them even though we’ve beaten them” crowd hadn’t sabotaged the media and Hollywood at that time. We were proud to be Americans.
And when our young president, John F. Kennedy, announced that we would put a man on the moon, and bring him home, within a decade — just to prove we could — we didn’t ridicule and stonewall him in Congress. We applauded him, and we rolled up our sleeves and went to work to make it happen.
That was impossible, of course. John Glenn hadn’t even orbited the Earth yet — and his first effort was shortened to three of a planned seven trips around the big blue marble when he did make it. That didn’t dampen our enthusiasm, of course, nor should it have. That didn’t stop John Glenn from becoming a national hero. Nor should it have.
We lost that president but kept his dream alive. We were America, and even while we were brawling in the streets of our cities in order to begin righting centuries of wrongs in the civil rights arena, even as we were grappling with the notion of whether a war in southeast Asia was noble or unjust, even as a counter-culture movement began to force us to examine our collective soul as a nation, we kept that dream alive.
We worked together, we learned, we invented that which had never been known, we used our brains to their fullest capacity — no personal computers in the 1960s — we did it primarily with paper and pencil and slide rules.
And then on July 20, 1969 — with five months to spare for JFK’s promise — Apollo 11 landed on the moon’s surface. “Houston—Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.”
The Eagle had landed! And we were proud! Not ashamed. Not apologetic. We were proud that we, as a nation, were able to do the impossible. We should have been proud. We still should be.
Six hours later, telling partner Buzz Aldrin, “You stay in the truck,” Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module, uttered the now famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
He planted the American flag on the surface of the moon — even if the Hollywood people cut that part out of their movie — along with a plaque that reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
July 20, 1969. And just like that it is 50 years later. What the world now calls history, I call memories of my youth.
I was 17 and spent that Sunday afternoon taking my girlfriend, Kim Puckett, to a movie in downtown Atlanta. We saw “Goodbye Columbus” with Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin. The girl at the popcorn stand had a small black-and-white television set up behind the counter, and I was so interested in the moon landing that I spent most of the two hours at the concession stand and missed most of the movie, including the part where Ali McGraw took off all her clothes and jumped in the swimming pool.
I got home in plenty of time to see Armstrong exit the module. They pre-empted “Bonanza” that night.
Fifty years ago, America did something that they said couldn’t be done, just to prove that we could. Our quest gave us an enormous sense of pride and hope for the future, along with Tang, freeze-dried food, smoke detectors, artificial limbs, satellite TVs and memory foam mattresses.
The communists didn’t make it to the moon. They still haven’t been. But the United States of America?
We used to could put a man on the moon.