On July 20th, 1969 my family was vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard. We had brought a black-and-white TV, watching as the Eagle landed. About a month earlier, my sister had dressed as the First U.S. Girl on the Moon for Brighton’s Meadowbrook Parade. And that July night, the first U.S. man took his small step.
We also brought an Erector Set. While waiting for the landing, my father, my sister and I built our own engineering marvel. A five feet tall tower with a motor powering a small cabin to the top. That I still have.
In a historical coincidence, a few miles from us two days earlier, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. And never followed in his brother’s footsteps as President, the brother who would not live the see the New Frontier realized.As we mark this year’s anniversary and approach the 50th, to learn more about what the moon landing has meant over the decades, I visited with Director Steve Fentress at the Strasenburgh Planetarium.
Ten to fourteen is sometimes described as “the age of wonder” for children: the years when their maturing imaginations see the world as unfolding possibilities. In 1969, at 13 Steve was right in the age of wonder sweet spot. In the year’s prior, Steve’s father, a journalist in St. Louis, had covered Project Gemini , captivating Steve with stories of its two-astronaut crews who flew low Earth orbits.
In many ways, July 20th shaped Steve’s imagination and career, leading him to the Strasenburgh Planetarium, itself a kind of gift in 1968 from the Strasenburghs to their grandchildren who watched in awe as man approached the moon.
As for July 20th, 1969 itself, as Steve explained, the historical response was complicated. Over the years, tv reporters have asked him about the moon landing, saying they nostalgically pictured all of America huddled around tv sets in celebration. But 1969 was also a period in American of great divides, cultural and political, especially over the Vietnam War.
The year before had been one of the most tumultuous in American history when many feared, distrusted or lost faith in government institutions. And some of this anxiety spilled over into misgivings about the space program.
To many, the space program was a financial and nationalistic excess at a time when America was tarnishing its ideals abroad. Steve remembers a popular National Lampoon poster with a photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon and headline: SO WHAT?
And in the years after the last manned mission in 1972, planetary travel began to feel anti–climactic. As a permanent base on the moon never came to be nor did the next Neil Armstrong leap onto Mars, the pull of moon landings noticeably lessened in the popular imagination. Except for “already committed space fans,” the 1969 anniversary passed with less and less fanfare.
In the 90’s Steve recalls the moon landings returning perversely with a spate of conspiracy theories and quasi-documentaries playing with the idea that they were all grand fabrications. At the same, around the 25th anniversary in 1994, Steve remembers planetarium goers who worked at Kodak in the 60s proudly talking about Kodak’s contribution to the Lunar Orbiter program.
Steve does think the 1995 film Apollo 13 — and subsequent work done by Tom Hanks to retell the story of astronautical heroics — marked a turn towards a more favorable view of the moon landings in historical memory. As the 50th anniversary approaches, the moon landings are becoming fixed in the national narrative as a great, if not unalloyed, American achievement — somewhat like how service in the Vietnam War is today almost universally honored.
All in all, Steve is optimistic about the future of space travel. In our often consumerist marinated world, Steve senses a desire for higher purposed endeavors like pushing the New Frontier ever outward. Space achievements won’t quite look like 1969 when a confluence of influences — scientific, social and geopolitical — came together to make landing on the moon seem an imperative for many. But right now, there might well be ten year olds entering the age of wonder who want to be The First U.S. Girl on Mars.
ALSO ON THE RMSC