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One Man and the Moon

KPCC's program director, Craig Curtis, wrote what I think is a nifty recollection of the 40th anniversary Man-in-the-Moon day, and I prevailed upon him to let me share it. On the theory that it's better to get forgiveness than permission, I might have posted it anyway, but he agreed, and here it is:

You will hear endlessly today about how the lunar landings were a rare bright spot in a horrible decade. Accomplishments in civil rights might be another, but otherwise our memories are full of Vietnam, riots and civic unrest, assassinations and the near catastrophic failure of government. (Culturally and historically, I think "The Sixties" stretched from the Kennedy assassination in '63 to Nixon's resignation in '74, but that's another essay.)

The lunar landings were a defining experience for three generations of Americans. The space program was started and run by the GI Generation--with significant help from a few German rocket scientists--for whom it was one more achievement to add to an already impressive list that included surviving the Depression, winning World War II, the post-war economic boom and laying the groundwork for winning the Cold War.

Most of the early astronauts, designers and engineers were from the small Swing Generation of Americans born between 1930 and 1946. Many of them were veterans of Korea and the early years in Vietnam. Finally, for Baby Boomers, the lunar landings were a shared experience that defined the generation and its sense of itself.

Of course it was remarkable for older Americans too. My grandma Feldmann was born a few months before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, so she was 67 the summer of the first lunar landings. She never ceased to marvel at how her life had taken in that sweep of history.

The oddly timely death of Walter Cronkite last week reminded me that the landings were largely not experienced live. Neil Armstrong's "one small step" took place very late at night, so most Americans read about that step in the morning papers or heard about it on the radio. Most didn't see the famous video until the network newscasts of the following evening, 18 hours after the fact. (CNN and the beginning of the round-the-clock news cycle was still 11 years away.)

While all of this is of modest cultural interest, there is one thing I'm sorry you never experienced.

After the late-night broadcast of the first lunar excursion, I walked into the back yard behind my parents' house and looked up at the moon, which was nearly full, as I recall. The science and technology that made the landings possible were remarkable for the time, but the most profound memory for most of us that night was looking up at the moon knowing that men were there. At that very moment.

I'm not sure what kind of moon we'll have tonight, but next time you look up at the moon, take a moment and remember that we left footprints there.