By Brian J. Karem
A mere two months after my birth President John F. Kennedy urged us to “Be Bold” and to put a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade.
I was therefore a child of Kennedy’s Space Age. A child of the 60s. A child of hope in a time of fear. The Cuban missile crisis. The Cold War. The Vietnam War. The Beatles. The Summer of Love. The Tet Offensive. Kennedy’s assassination. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Malcom X. Martin Luther King. I heard “Love it or Leave it.” I remember two different types of water fountains at school. I remember my dad telling me everyone deserves to be treated the same.
But for me, it was always the idea of leaving the confines of earth that triggered my romantic dreams of what mankind could achieve and the more I came to know the limitations and the strife, ugliness and cruelty human beings could inflict on each other, I confess I took refuge in space travel. I became a “Lost in Space” fan because there was a young boy traveling in space. I loved Star Trek for its hopeful vision of the future.
But, mostly I cut out all the articles in every newspaper I could find about the real space program. I could tell you about the Gemini missions, shutdowns on launch pads, which aircraft carrier would pick up astronauts and where. I knew who the original Mercury 7 astronauts were. I knew who Grissom, Chaffe and White were and why they mattered. I cried when I heard their fate.
But then came Apollo 11. “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” I sat up that night, 50 years ago, with my mother and father - squeezed between them in their bed as they allowed me to stay up and watch man first walk on the moon.
“You’re watching history,” my mom and dad told me.
I remember those words, and the joy of being able to watch Armstrong and Aldrin strolling across the lunar landscape. They made it look so easy. With an effort, anyone could accomplish anything. At that moment, to me anyway, The Apollo 11 crew was the pinnacle of the American dream.
I was only the second generation of Karems to be born in the United States, and dad was fond of telling me the endless possibilities of our country. Mom was always a big fan of science and still retains the imagination and desire to travel wherever that imagination can take her. You talk to my octogenarian mother to this day and she dreams of traveling to other galaxies. She’s quite entertaining when she does so.
I grew up imagining as an adult standing on the bridge of a large spaceship with the vista of the galaxy laid out in front of me as I looked out a large window. I imagined a world working together for a common goal. I remembered as I got older the magic of a president uniting a nation, not around a war, but around science, exploration and our imagination.
I cannot adequately explain to my own children what it was I felt sitting up that night watching man walk on the moon. But I know I was tingling with pride, joy, hope and a desire for something greater. I imagined living on the moon and thought by the time I was Buzz Aldrin’s age, or Neal Armstrong’s age, I would be able to see Apollo 11’s tranquility base outside my bedroom window as a national shrine.
But first Nixon, then nearly every other president since got us lost in tawdry politics, greed and fear. Not one of them has appealed to our better selves - most of them have been shallow, meaningless men who sought and to some extent succeeded in dividing us.
The United States of America is an idea and an ideal born of hope, exploration, science and endless curiosity. Our Constitution and Declaration of Independence remain two of the most brilliant documents ever written by man to describe our relationship with government and ourselves.
Fifty years after the United States showed the world what working together can do, we are now showing the world how a tribal mentality can tear us apart. Instead of cities on the moon, we only have footage of our greater glory to remember.
Why aren’t we there now? When did we turn our back on progress and embrace the doom and why did we do so? Why are television shows about surviving zombie attacks, or a dystopian apocalypse or even shows about medieval warfare (complete with dragons) so damn popular?
Where is the imagination of hope? Where are the ideals that propelled our immigrant fathers and mothers to this land to build a better home for everyone?
“One Small Step . . .” wasn’t supposed to be the pinnacle. It was supposed to be a beginning.
Today there are those who swear the moon landings never happened, the Holocaust didn’t occur, climate change is a myth and we should turn our heads away from the rest of the world - unless they bring us wads of sweaty cash.
This is not our country. Our country put a man on the moon. Our presidents once inspired us to greatness. Our politicians once thought of the country before their party and themselves.
And we, at one point in time, demanded it from our leaders.
Ten years after man landed on the moon, I graduated high school and left home for college, confident that with the shuttle program underway, we would soon have a base on the moon and we’d leave the earth for Mars.
Twenty years after man landed on the moon, I found myself in San Antonio, Texas covering crime, national, state and local politics and wondering if we as a nation had drifted away from the goals, drive and ideals President Kennedy appealed to when he challenged us to get to the moon.
Thirty years after man landed on the moon, I found myself living in the suburbs of Washington D.C., and unsure if President Bill Clinton had any desire to further our space program. I was only convinced he was an aging lothario who lied about sexual encounters with interns and the G.O.P had devolved into a band of greedy miscreants who cared more about their party than their country.
Forty years after man landed on the moon, the national political landscape was as divisive as I’d ever seen it. People were pulling their hair out because an African American man had been elected as president. President Barack Obama didn’t seem too interested in pursuing a national space program agenda - he wanted to privatize space. The Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell wanted to obstruct anything he did.
And now, a half a century later, I cannot recognize the American Space program or the country which put a man on the moon. We have a proposed “Space Force” to weaponize space. We have only individuals talking about sending us back to the moon. There is no national effort to do so, and we’re even more divided now than at any time in my life. President Donald Trump has replaced the progressive actions of John Kennedy wanting to put people on the moon with a Honeymooner’s style rant of “To the Moon Alice!”
Fifty years to the day after I watched the moon landing as it happened, I sat up and watched the Apollo 11 moon landing again by way of a CNN documentary made from archival footage. Coincidentally I watched Armstrong walk on the moon at nearly the exact same time of the day as I watched it when a young boy.
I paused the video at one point and got up and looked outside, trying to see the moon - much as I did as a child. As I glanced skyward, I remembered the words I heard from a friend of mine. In 1989 the main anchor at NBC affiliate KMOL was Alan Hemberger. A Vietnam veteran, Alan told me he remembered the moon landing because he was slogging through a rice paddy that day when he got the word of man’s greatest accomplishment. He looked down at the ground and then up at the sky and thought, in wonder, the great difference - not only in distance - between Vietnam and the moon. And, he said, despite his own circumstances, he was filled with a feeling of hope.
As those words came back to me, standing on my back porch, I swallowed hard. I remembered it well. The rush of hope. The idea that anything was possible. The world, despite all its trials, tribulations, wars, hatred, insecurity and anger was filled with wondrous and breathtaking potential.
We merely had to step up. We merely have to take the Kennedy challenge.
It’s been a half century of political scandal, intrigue, infighting and stupidity by Democrats, Republicans and the American public. Instead of hope, we too often give into despair and anger.
We can’t even laugh without fear any more.
But, I defy anyone to look at men walking on the moon and not come away moved with how man can overcome any obstacle. We made the nearly impossible environment of the moon a part of man’s realm. If that doesn’t inspire you, then I do not know what will. I marveled at how Aldrin and Armstrong made walking on the moon seem almost mundane. No oxygen. A sixth of the gravity on our planet. No water. Radiation. No big deal.
A million things could’ve gone wrong with the Apollo 11 expedition - the Apollo 1 fire, the Apollo 13 "Houston we have a problem," the 1986 Challenger disaster are just three examples of what can go wrong with space travel. Yet it is mankind’s intrepid nature and insatiable curiosity which naturally propels us to take risks and by working together despite our differences achieve the greatest results. That was Apollo 11.
We did this.
We can do it again. We just have to quit fighting with each other long enough to make it happen. Kennedy told us the greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds. So, the question remains, can we quit destroying ourselves through our shared ignorance and then through our growing knowledge give our children a legacy of which we and they can be proud?
I hope I live to see an affirmative answer to that question.
c 2019 Brian J. Karem
(watch the linked videos for a moving tribute to manned space flight.)