On this date, exactly a half-century ago, the Apollo 11 capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, concluding in bookend fashion what I can say is the single most remarkable technological achievement of my lifetime, one that began with our area’s own Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins’ blast off in a three-stage 363-foot-tall Saturn rocket that generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust on July 16, 1969.
Of course, with such a momentous historical anniversary, pretty much every aspect of the remarkable achievement has been covered by the media this month.
The story of how the spacesuits were made fascinated me. It was the International Latex Corporation that was awarded the contract for the Apollo suits, and some of the company’s most talented sewers of brassieres were tabbed to sew the suits, suits that needed to be 21 ultra-thin layers sewn to an exact tolerance of 1/64th of an inch for maximum flexibility.
As I heard three of those who worked those sewing machines in an all-women staff on a morning news segment last week, it occurred to me how many individual human components it took to achieve what I still see as a miracle. And, in listening to the women recount their work, I also began to grasp the pressure they must have felt. One spoke of the nervous tears she shed nightly when going home, tears that sprang from her hidden fears that somehow she’d made a mistake and slipped a stitch that would mortally endanger someone’s life.
A PBS special I watched also was enlightening as I heard a scientist say that the 21-day quarantine of the three astronauts may not have really been all that necessary when the astronauts returned. Isolation, it was decided at the time, could prevent the possible transmission of any harmful lunar germs. It was unnecessary, given the fact that anything potentially harmful would have already been released into the atmosphere as soon as the capsule’s hatch was opened.
And, I also learned over these past couple weeks of the sad narrative of Aldrin’s mother. Despite the excitement leading up to the mission, no doubt, Aldrin must have carried a bit of a heavy heart into space on launch day. His mother, who so aptly carried as her maiden name Marion Moon, committed suicide during the training for the Apollo mission in 1968.
As for Aldrin himself, in the years following the mission that made him famous, he would himself battle both alcoholism and depression before emerging from the darkness.
I thought to myself of the difficulty these three men, all just 39 years young at the time, must have had wondering what they could ever do as an encore once they returned. I think when I was 18 years old watching the event unfold live, one that transfixed most Americans, I may have thought about the potential physical complications going to the moon may have caused, but I’m sure I was oblivious to the potential psychological effects.
Hearkening back to my coming-of-age 1960s, I remember my parents playing that stereo they referred to as a hi-fi more often than watching TV that, even in the early 1960s, was still in its relative infancy. After all, in their coming-of-age years, there was no TV, and the centerpiece for evening entertainment was that large radio console in the corner of what was then called the “front room” before that very area in newer houses years later would become the “living room.”
Many of the albums my parents played were Frank Sinatra. I couldn’t even tell you, say, in 1962, the number of times I heard played in that little ranch house in the middle of the 1500 block of Latham those Sinatra’s lyrics, “Fly me to the moon/Let me play among the stars.” I thought of those boyhood moments again when I read in these last couple weeks that Buzz Aldrin actually played the Sinatra version of that song as he stepped onto the lunar surface, making it the first music ever heard on the moon.
I remember pretty clearly on that July 20 the actual lunar landing. My father, who rarely passed up an opportunity either to attend or throw a party, played host that Sunday to a house full of people, people who assumed looks of incredulity when, shortly before 11 pm, the grainy images of men on the moon were transmitted.
It was a marvelous moment, without question, especially since it was a positive historical insertion into times filled with such sadness and turmoil. It was just a little over a year earlier that Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated within two months’ time. And, the sad images of the Vietnam War became increasingly more frequent on the evening news, accompanied by the grim face of Walter Cronkite.
Yes, there were others after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who walked on the moon, 12 to be exact. While the first two are easily remembered, many of you would never have been able to recall the last, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who did so during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
As for a final thought about the coverage of these past two weeks, I will say I felt some tinges of sadness, which always envelops me when I think of how quickly life goes by. While Aldrin and Collins are still with us and were allowed to take their curtain calls some 50 years after their marvelous achievements, how sad I thought it is that the third rocket man of what both astronaut and wordsmith Collins once dubbed “the amiable strangers” couldn’t have been here to return to that town just 15 miles south of Lima, that town that raised him, so that others could tell him once more how very important his one small step truly was.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.