Sunday, July 19, 2009

Apollo 11 Anniversary -- 40 years since first Moon walk

I was 11 years old when the Apollo 11 mission headed towards the Moon. I recall that the night of July 20, 1969 was warm in Los Angeles when my Dad called us in from outside (we were allowed to stay outside later than normal during the summer -- plus, it was hot and we had no air-conditioning in the house) to watch the TV broadcast from the Moon. I couldn't quite make out what I was seeing on the TV screen -- the contrast on the image was high. So, it took me a little while to recognize the outline of Neil Armstrong's suited body carrying the boxy EVA pack on his back.

People were on the Moon. Walking on the Moon. Not just taking pictures of it, actually walking on the Moon. This was so exciting to me and the event is one of those signposts that stand out in my memory. I often try to reconstruct my path to becoming a scientist and watching the first Moon walk is one of those moments, one of those points along the way. Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about the space program, in particular the Apollo 8 mission, when sent back the first photos of the Earth hanging in space (the Big Blue Marble). Campbell felt that "Earthrise" was the beginning of a new myth.

Commenting on the 10th anniversary of the first Moon walk, Campbell reflects, "Men stood on the moon and looked back -- and by television we were able to look back with them -- to see earthrise. That is the symbol that enabled us to feel the truth of the discovery Copernicus made four and a quarter centuries ago."
(1979 interview with the NY Times, a copy of which is available here).

Campbell wrote quite a bit about the mythology of space exploration. Here is one more example: "The knowledge of space is the knowledge of our lives. We're born from space. It was from space that the Big Bang came that sent forth galaxies, and out of the galaxies, solar systems. The planet we are on is a little pebble in one of these things, and we have grown out of the earth of this pebble. This is the fantastic mythology that's waiting for somebody to write poems about." (Myths of Light xix).

You can watch a "replay" of the Apollo 11 mission on Twitter @ReliveApollo11. Nasa has paid to have TV images from the Moon restored (the original tapes were erased and reused, so the only images are from contemporary TV broadcasts, which varied greatly in quality. You can watch the restored footage here. Explore the surface of the Moon on Google.

I don't quite feel 11 again, mostly because I think the original sense of awe is difficult to revisit, especially 40 years later. But, I feel some measure of that wonder when I think about the fact that humans once walked, jumped, skipped, golfed, and drove on the lunar surface. Perhaps it will happen again and perhaps it will be as a waystation on the way to the next planet in the series, Mars. Then the footstep below would be in red Martian regolith.

That would be amazing.

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