July 20, 1969: Witnessing the Inevitable

I’m old enough to remember — I was 13, in the summer between 8th and 9th grades. Star Trek had ended a couple months earlier, I had survived two weeks in the hospital following a ruptured appendix a couple months before that (“In the Year 2525″ ran endlessly on the radio that played in my shared room), a year or so before that, 2001: A Space Odyssey had premiered, and only a year or two before that, I had started reading science fiction. My family was living in a Chicago suburb, where my father was working as an industrial architect on what became known as Fermilab.

We had a black and white TV, and I remember the grainy pictures as we sat late into the night (if I recall correctly), watching the descent down the ladder and the famous first words. I can’t say I remember, first-hand, much else.

I do remember more of the context, and of events before and after. I was old enough to recognize the historical importance of the event, though young enough that it did not seem quite so awesome, so miraculous, as it did to the adults, who lacked the science fictional perspective I’d just recently acquired.

A couple of weeks later, my family set off on one of our standard summer vacations, driving and camping from one national park to the next. We hit Great Smoky Mountain National Park first, and then we visited Washington DC, staying not in a campground but with cousins of my mother’s in a Washington suburb. Sometimes it’s the peripheral events that linger in the memory as long as the central events: we visited Dulles airport, just so my father could admire the architecture, and there I bought a paperback book called We Reach the Moon by one John Noble Wilford, who I see is still 40 years later writing for the New York Times; the book was an early example of what became known as ‘instant’ books, written and published within days or weeks of a newsworthy event. (And of course, I still have the book.) And I remember, during that stay with my mother’s cousins, explaining to everyone what the film 2001 was ‘really’ about — I had read the book.

Those peripheral events were the context in which I witnessed the first moon landing. Yes, it was amazing and historic… but at the same time, it was a modest achievement, and it was inevitable. There were space stations and starships and a whole future history yet to come. Apollo 11 was significant — but in a way I couldn’t admit or explain to anyone else, not so impressive, really. The really cool stuff was yet to come.

Of course, much has changed since then.

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