By Michael Bird
As hard as it may be to believe, this week marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the crowning scientific achievement of the 20th century.
The cellular device in your hands has more computing power than Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins had on Apollo 11; they had what amounted to a calculator keeping them alive.
The space race of the 1960s has always fascinated me. I am too young to have been there to witness all of this in person but I do have one small connection.
My first radio job was at WTBF-AM 970 in Troy. In July 1969, owner/engineer Joe Gilchrist decided to do a live remote from Cape Kennedy as the astronauts blasted into space. In the lobby of the radio station is a sign that says “WTBF WAS THERE.” I asked him what it meant. Mr. Joe told me there were four news outlets covering the launch of Apollo 11: NBC, CBS, ABC and WTBF. I am inclined to believe him based on photographic evidence of the event.
Every so often, humans can do amazing things. The fact a goal to land Americans on the moon by the end of the 1960s and bring them safely back to earth was publicly set by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and then achieved would be unbelievable had the events not actually happened.
“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard,” JFK said in a famous speech at Rice University.
That line has always struck me as a real profile in courage, to quote the title of President Kennedy’s book: Americans should strive to do things because they’re hard, not because they’re easy. The work ethic he espoused in that one line carried us to the moon and back within seven short years.
Those seven years were filled with tragedies but also many triumphs. When bad things did happen, such as launch failures, being beaten into earth orbit by the Russians and particularly the fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee, those setbacks were all terrible in their own way. Lives were lost, career trajectories altered, families changed forever, you name it.
But the United States stood firm in its resolve to follow through. From July 16-24, 1969, our nation, and indeed the world, watched as humanity touched the heavens and not only flew to the moon but explored it.
Rather than list the technological marvels NASA came up with, one thing I am taking away from the 50th anniversary commemorations this week is our society is just too afraid of risks at this point in time to even consider something like this. While those SpaceX rockets take off every now and then, and there has been talk of a mission to Mars, there does not seem to be a national mission that has been so clearly defined and followed through without divisiveness.
Perhaps there will be again someday. But this week, as we remember the incredible bravery and contributions of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and the team that took us to the moon, take a moment to step outside in the evening. Look up and think of those few days in which we were all united, now 50 years past.
Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools.