Today marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Four days later, its lunar lander would touch down on our planet’s only natural satellite, the Moon.
Should we really care that much? In a way, anniversaries are meaningless. Even round-number ones like 50th, 75th and 100th anniversary commemorations are a stretch. Why does 50 years to the day matter more than 49 years and 364 days? Or 50 years and three days? And you have to admit that we live in a world in which anniversaries are everywhere. All you need to do is go to the Internet to find what happened 50 years ago today, or 83 years ago, for that matter.
Did you know, for instance, that today marks the 74th anniversary of the first successful test of a nuclear weapon? Or that it was 20 years ago today that John F. Kennedy, Jr., died in the crash of a plane he was flying, along with his wife and sister-in-law? Or that it was 24 years ago today that Amazon.com launched its business? Anniversaries are everywhere. And while they are, in a way, just random recollections of things past at what might well as be random intervals, they’re also important milestones to mark remembrances of important things, events that are special to us in innumerable, very different kinds of ways.
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There’s also the human factor of it. I’ll possibly be around for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War II, which will be September 2nd, 2045—I’ll be 86 if I wind up being that lucky. But none of the men and women who waged that war will be alive to look back at it, unless they were young to begin with and somehow make it to 115 or so. The last Union veteran of the American Civil War, Albert Henry Woolson, died nine years before the anniversary. A man named Pleasant Crump was the last verified surviving Confederate soldier. He died in 1950. So 50th anniversaries make sense. Arguably 75th anniversaries, too. Centennials, on the other hand, are historic occasions. That history is really history.
Today, as you doubtless know, July 16, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. Two of the astronauts who went to the Moon, Buzz Aldrin (89), who went for a stroll, the second after Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins (88), who commanded the Lunar orbiter, survive. Neil Armstrong, the first person ever to walk on the Moon, died almost seven years ago.
By July 16, 1969, the space program was still young, slightly more than a decade old, depending on how you figure the start of it. That 11th mission was the culmination of the Apollo program. That mission aimed at going to the moon. Well, since President Kennedy made it a national goal, everything that NASA did was aimed toward us getting to the moon, but Apollo 11 was no dress rehearsal. Its goal was the Moon itself. And not just to the moon, but to land on the moon. And not to just land on the moon, but to land a human on the moon. And not to just land a human (two of them, in fact) on the moon but to then have those humans walk around the surface a bit and bring back some chunks of it to Earth.
Never before had a human being gone to another heavenly body. Never before had a human being walked on another heavenly body.
And never again will there be such a first, though some of us might be alive to see the first Mars walker take his or her first walk there.
No, our journey to the Moon, humankind’s journey to the Moon, changed everything about how we saw ourselves and the place we live. The song Refuge of The Roads by Joni Mitchell on her 1976 album “Hejira” puts a sharp point on it.
In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn't see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all…
Never before in human history had we achieved the kind of perspective that the Apollo 11 mission gave us all. And those of us who witnessed it on TV, and nearly a half-billion people did, knew right then and there that the world had changed. And it was thanks to the brilliant and brave men and women, thousands of them, who had that vision, to paraphrase President Kennedy when he announced our national goal of going to the Moon, do something not because it was easy but because it was hard, and because doing seemingly impossible things can change the world in ways we can’t even imagine.
It’s the anniversary of an event like no other before or since. I for one will have my head lifted skyward every evening for the next few days. Then again, more often than not, I’ve been gazing in that general direction both literally and otherwise for 50 years now.