To the point week of 7/26/07


I HAPPENED TO BE WATCHING some young people late last week. They were juggling their iPods while trying to send a text message to a friend on their cell phones. Another was looking for a wi-fi connection so he could power up his laptop, which was carried in a small pouch thrown around his shoulder.

The kids were talking about getting online to check the weather and also what time a nearby restaurant closed for the night. They were going to download some music and check in on their MySpace page; then maybe head home and fire up the PS3 or X-Box or some other computerized game.

Our children – and each of us – is fully and completely immersed in a computerized culture. I don’t know if the iPhone will work in Switzerland County, but I want one.

For a person nearing 50 faster than I care to acknowledge, it’s like living in a episode of the “Jetsons”.

Then I noticed the date. It was July 21st, and I happened to catch the eye of my wife and with a nod I said, “You know what you were doing 38 years ago today?”

After some thought and calculations, much to the amazement of our children, she looked at me and said. “I was watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.”

That’s right. It was July 21st, 1969, and the entire world was glued to televisions - black and white and color sets – and watched grainy footage of a spaceman slowly climb down a ladder on the side of a lunar landing module.

The first words heard from the moon were “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

‘The Eagle’ was the nickname of the lunar landing craft, and when the world heard those words, it was the pinnacle of a completed mission that had begun nearly a decade ago.

President John Kennedy challenged America and Americans in a speech to Congress on May 25th, 1961, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade.

To fully appreciate that challenge, youngsters need to understand a couple of key things”

First, we had barely gotten into space at all. The speech was made just three weeks after Allen Shepherd became the first American in space.

We hadn’t even gotten into orbit yet, and the President was challenging us to not only land on the moon, but to return safely to earth, as well.

You see, Kennedy focused this country on a goal and a challenge, and then left it to our citizens to achieve that goal.

And we did.

Second, as strange as it may sound to teenagers, there were computers in the 1960s, but they barely fit into a room, let alone a backpack.

They were huge and new and a great unknown.

Calculations by scientists and mathematicians were done on slide rules. Slide rules were basically three rulers tied together so that they could slide back and forth and compute statistical information.

Men and women used pencils and paper to make projections, and then doubled checked their work.

So, about 40 years ago a group of men and women used their brains and their educations and the limited technology of the day to figure out how to build a rocket that was big enough to launch something the size of a building from a dead stop up into the atmosphere and into earth’s orbit.

Once in earth’s orbit, they figured the exact amount of time to burn another engine that would propel the spaceship out of orbit at just the right time so that it would leave the earth’s orbit and begin to be pulled to the moon by its gravitational pull.

Floating through space, three men got into lunar orbit, and two of those men climbed into a second spacecraft that was attached to the nose of the command module.

They disconnected from the craft, leaving one astronaut alone in lunar orbit, and descended down to the surface of the moon.

They landed on the correct day in nearly the exact spot that those mathematicians back on earth figured they would. It was July 20th, 1969; and once on the surface, everyone waited for Neil Armstrong to climb down that ladder.

You have to remember that simply being able to see it on a camera mounted on the outside of the lunar lander was itself a miracle, and on July 21st, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped down that ladder and put his left foot on a place that no other human had ever stepped and said “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent 2 1/2 hours walking around on the surface of the moon; then they got back in that lander, blasted off, found Michael Collins in the command module floating around in lunar orbit – right where he was supposed to be.

The three reunited, and fired engines at just the right time to leave the moon’s orbit and begin to float back through space, this time being pulled toward the earth by our gravity.

More calculations got the spacecraft tilted at just the right angle as to reenter the earth’s atmosphere and come home.

Not tilted enough, the ship skips off the atmosphere and out into space. Tilted too much, the capsule burns up.

It had to be perfect, and it was.

The spacecraft landed in the ocean on the correct day at the correct time in nearly the exact place that had been plotted.

And we had achieved our goal.

Being a kid of the “space race”, I remember those days very well; but today I can’t help but smile when I realize that it was all done with pencils and paper and smarts and not so much with computers and calculators.

We used our brains to get to the moon and back; and now - 38 years later, in the midst of the Internet and high tech video games, I have to stop and smile.