Apollo 11 and the Wonder of Looking Up

By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.

To be honest, my memory of the first man on the moon is a little blurry, or rather sleepy since I was woken up to watch it on TV that summer night.  But along with my thumb securely in mouth, I still remember it.  For the rest of my life my parents wanted me to be able to say, “I saw the first men walk on the moon.”

The Moon on July 20, 1969

Obviously, I had no comprehension this was the zenith of human progress since the dawn of time. Yet, when my mother pointed to the bright ball in the sky which held endless wonder and fascination for her little boy and explained that’s where the astronauts were, somehow I understood.  Looking back, I think that’s also where I understood the importance of being present for singular events and marking historic milestones in humankind’s epic journey.

They are the moments which bind us together, bridge our divides, and remind us of our common humanity.

“Putting a man on the moon” may have been the goal of the American/Soviet “Space Race,” but when the moment arrived on July 20, 1969, the entire world was watching, and held its breath, and celebrated as one.  Neil Armstrong’s iconic words were not about American nationalism, but humility at our place in the cosmos and for an achievement  shared by all on Earth.

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Attached to the Lunar Module is a plaque left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts with a message for the future in unity and inclusion from our world. It reads,

Here men from the planet Earth

First set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D.

We came in peace for all mankind

An American flag was planted on the moon in recognition of the 400,000 men and women it took to fulfill, President John F Kennedy’s promise, and the nation which achieved what had captured the imagination of anyone who had ever looked up at the night sky.  Perhaps that was the greatest achievement of putting a man on the moon fifty years ago, it captured the imagination of the entire world and opened a universe of wondrous possibilities. 

In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP)

Today we hold in our hands computers more powerful than the entire computer system NASA used to get three men to the moon and back, but they hold little power compared to the wonder of that achievement.  In the midst of one of the most turbulent and divisive times, when social norms and beliefs were in violent upheaval, the wonder of achievement, the wonder of discovery, of endless possibilities had the ability to unite people everywhere. Apollo 11 Astronaut, Mike Collins has commented wherever the crew went during their year long “world tour” people held signs reading, “We did it!”

Even greater than the sense of unity was the wonder of possibility in a limitless future moved eminently closer by one small step.  The new millennium was thirty years away, but the future was now. If we could walk on the moon, then anything was possible.  The future of humanity was a blaze like never before and tomorrow?  Tomorrow would be even brighter.

But something happened along the way.

Smartphones, sold to “connect” us, prevent us from looking at each other and seeing our common humanity. Instead of global heroes celebrated for risking their lives in the quest for knowledge and exploration, now millions follow internet personalities, famous for being famous.  Today because people willfully deny and ignore, the very kind of scientific reasoning and facts that took man to the moon, our outlook for a sustainable future on “Spaceship Earth” is only thirty years.

We’ve lost our sense of wonder.

In 1969, the world watched in wonderment as humankind first stepped upon the moon, the nighttime companion to every generation of humanity since we first crawled upon dry land.  The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, Mayans, Persians, Aborigines, all the peoples of all civilizations, tribes, and nomads great and small have all looked up at the very same moon in wonder and wondered.  Today we look down at algorithms that tell us who to like, follow, and believe because it knows, what we know, or think we know.  No wonder our world is, where it is.

But fifty years later, I’m reliving and embracing the memories of a little boy’s boundless wonder.  I know its power to unite humankind, not in anger, but in joy because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen its ability to inspire men and women, artist and scientist, teachers and lawmakers to create a peaceful and hopeful tomorrow.  It can unite and inspire anyone. 

Just look up at the moon, and wonder…

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