Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Apollo Moon Landing: Thirty-nine Years Ago Today (. . . or not?)

The space race accelerated fast and furious in the late fifties, early sixties especially after the Soviet achievement of sending Yuri Gagarin, the first man into space in April, 1961 followed two years later by the first woman cosmonaut.

Later that year, President John F. Kennedy challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. And sure enough, July 20, 1969 it happened -- 39 years ago today. Or so they say.

There certainly are skeptics about the lunar landing, however, and I've encountered several in Russia.

* * * * *

And so it was that today, in honor of the July 20th lunar landing, I decided to conduct an informal survey here in Donetsk, Ukraine. Riding home from church on Bus 46, I realized that the nice blond lady sitting next to me would be the perfect target for a question on this theme. We were in the very last row of the bus and she was surrounded by three buckets of apricots.

Are you coming from your dacha?

Well, my parents live on some land outside the city and these apricots are from their trees.

Oh lovely. Say, I have a rather odd question for you. You know they say that 39 years ago today, the first man walked on the moon. But there are people who believe it was a trick. May I ask, what do you think?

Of course it really happened. Why would they say it happened if it didn’t?

Good enough. She rewarded my conversational efforts with a handful of apricots although I protested because I didn’t want any. But protesting and feigning disinterest is the Russian way of being modest and coy – and although we’re in Ukraine, this area is heavily influenced by Russia. And so a determined person will pay little attention to someone’s protestations about not wanting something. And determined she was. Soon I had 20-some apricots in a plastic bag that she had scrounged up from somewhere.

So far so good. I decided to take the conversation another step.

Let me ask you, the gentleman sitting next to you, would he be your husband? Maybe we could ask him his opinion about the lunar landing.

He was, in fact, her husband, probably mid-forties, prematurely white-headed, clad in a white, button-down shirt open at the neck and I guessed him to be in mid-management. Apricot Lady repeated the question for him.

Bad idea. The moon landing topic hit a nerve somewhere, somehow. In about 10 seconds, this fellow turned into a red-faced defender of national integrity against an American assault. I understood only a part of his outburst but it’s fair to say that he doesn't whistle Yankee Doodle or fantasize about emigrating.

Mercy me! Apricot Lady tried to calm him. But he couldn’t hear her through his rant.

Well, I have no particular emotional interest in this topic, I said. I’m just interested in what people think about it.

Still, he was approaching hysteria. The veins on his neck were bulging.

I turned to Lady Apricot. So, tell me, is this a good year for apricots?

She smiled at the diversion. Oh yes. The last two years we had absolutely nothing in the way of apricots and this year, it’s a bumper crop.

Soon we reached their bus stop and as he stood to leave, Mr. Hysteria leaned over to hand me three more apricots. Here, please don’t be offended about what I said.

And off they went. So, does he believe in the lunar landing or not? Hard to say. . .

* * * * *

Later that afternoon I found myself in a very different conversation at a restaurant with three Christian brothers from Texas and two local translators. While waiting for our milkshakes, we had, say, 30 minutes to fill -- I had no idea milkshakes were so labor-intensive -- and so the lunar landing came up again.

Little did I know that our little group included a NASA engineer.

I can tell you that it absolutely did happen, Bill said. Although I did notice his eyes flashing. I designed the lunar landing module and I was in it when we tested it, taking off and landing, taking off and landing several times. And I can tell you that it absolutely did happen.

Oh so you were in it when the fake film of the lunar landing was made? (You know engineers, they need some teasing now and then.)

Oh no, I can tell you that the absolutely went to the moon and came back.

* * * * *

So there you have it. A totally unscientific survey, but there are two very different reactions to the lunar landing is said to have happened July 20, 1969. And you, where were you and what were you doing when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon?


Anonymous said...

I was on the ground with Third Marine Division inside the Republic of Vietnam on the day of the lunar landing. Our radio transmission was customarily garbled and yet one could still pick out pertinent details as presented by Armed Forces Radio Network.

Do I think we landed on the moon?

Yep. Only the U.S., so seemingly preoccupied with keeping abreast with or militarily surpassing the Soviet Union in those days, would've spent so much time, money, and manpower in completing so formidable, so symbolic--and perhaps so unnecessary--a task.

Those too young to recall "the [US-Soviet] Bomber gap" of the 1950s, won't know that we unnecessarily spent ourselves into a frenzy in attempting to match an alleged Soviet bomber advantage that, in fact, was little more than simple Soviet subterfuge designed to compel us to spend a large chunk of our GNP in order that we might feel "safer"--and alternately jink (as the Kremlin hoped) our domestic economy.

The Russians are superb strategists when it comes to strategic military cat-and-mouse contests, and yet we famously one-upped them in the mid-1980s, when President Reagan cunningly convinced them to overspend themselves in an ill-begotten attempt to counter our vaunted new missile-defense program ("Star Wars"). If anything, I would guess that Apricot's husband's memory of Star Wars is what likely moved him to apoplexy when queried on our lunar landing--and who knows, perhaps the landing itself was indeed our own version of strategic subterfuge. Who's to say that we didn't stage the event simply in that we might cow the Russians into believing that we had at last out-maneuvered them in space exploration? At any rate--landing or no landing--the move seems to have worked wonders for our side, and we now likely hold an edge in space (for whatever that means in this world where any lone Bedouin gunman can daily terrorize scores of innocent bystanders on any given Middle East city streetcorner).

We paid billions for that moondust, and in the end, if nothing else, the trip was an incredible adventure--if genuine.

Jeanette said...

I was between my freshman and sophomore years of college, home for the summer. As I recall, the event happened on a Sunday and I was in church. Knowing the first steps would likely be taken during the service, the pastor had agreed to wheel in a TV set so we could all witness the "one small step for man." In the '60s, it required an act of God to interrupt a Baptist service. So I say it really happened.

Eileen said...

Hey Anonymous - so you were in Vietnam, eh? Oh my, what a time...and one can only imagine the stories you have to tell!

Jeannette - are you serious, a TV in the auditorium during the service? You know, now that I think about it, not tooo hard to make a spiritual link there - and that could Fly for application lesson. hmmm! =)

But see, I'm skeptical about it being on a Sunday, just off the top of my head, because our family woulda been in church too on a Sunday pm.... but we were there watching it at home on the TV RENTED for the occassion. But then again we were in the Eastern Time zone - need to do some research on the topic. Never know when we might want to KNOW when the lunar landing happened - day of week and time of day. =)