When John Kennedy declared that America would send people to the moon, a grand drama began. It rolled out like a TV serial, in episodes that captivated the nation. We thought we knew the ending – but you couldn’t be sure.
When an American went into space – Alan Shepard, who happened to be my mother’s childhood playmate – the race to get to the moon before the Russians was on. Each adventure that followed was a little more ambitious: orbiting the earth, spaceships rendezvousing, the first spacewalk – Ed White was too awestruck to return to the capsule – and then, astonishingly, tragedy, as three astronauts were incinerated on the launch pad. This wasn’t a movie. And the Russians pressed on, relentlessly, with their own exploits.
But America didn’t stand still while NASA raced to the moon. At first, we were pretty innocent, seduced by visions of The Jetsons and afraid that the Russians would steal our future from us. By the time Apollo 11 was launched, the country had been transformed by the civil rights movement, rock and roll, and, most of all, the war in Vietnam. The war, which had raged for four years by 1969, changed our view of the world, and we began to focus more on our own planet than on getting to another one. Barry McGuire’s hit “Eve of Destruction” told us “you may leave the here for four days in space, but when you return it’s the same old place.”
Like most young Americans, I was bedazzled by the early space flights. Every time a new mission was launched, we watched it in school on small black and white TVs. We looked on breathlessly, counting orbits, until the astronauts splashed down. But as the flights became longer and more routine, I began to lose interest. NASA tried hard to keep our attention, staging live-from-space astronaut shows that culminated in the spectacular broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968.
The lunar landing of July 1969, the fulfillment of Kennedy’s dream, rekindled the excitement for a brief moment. It wasn’t just America – the whole world was galvanized as Neil and Buzz moonwalked across our little screens. For me, it was bittersweet – I loved idea of exploring space, and I wanted desperately to float weightlessly, watching the earth below. But the “race” – beating the Russians – by now seemed silly, and I was having trouble justifying such costly adventures while a war raged and earthlings went hungry.
The next moon landing came as hundreds of thousands of Americans converged on Washington DC for a massive demonstration against the war, and the astronauts were no longer in the headlines. Only the nail-biting drama of Apollo 13, a failed mission that became an unlikely triumph, recaptured our attention.
In the end, the most remarkable journeys ever taken – to the moon and back – were reduced to mere entertainment. When the drama ended the audience turned to another channel.
But the space program had a profound impact on those of us who grew up in the 1960s. It gave us a national goal that we believed in – for a while – and it very literally shaped our world view. The image of the whole earth from deep space taught our generation that we were all sharing the same small planet.
That’s where Some Way Outa Here begins.