Monday, July 20, 2009

The Original Moonwalk

TONIGHT MARKS THE 40th ANNIVERSARY of the human race's singular technological accomplishment -- bigger than Twitter, even more impressive than the George Foreman Grill: sending three men to the moon and back. On July 20, 1969, sprawled in front of my aunt's living room color console in New Jersey, I watched in awe as the Apollo 11 spacecraft touched down and deposited Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon.

If we could somehow time-travel back through the miracle of the Interweb to that miracle summer of '69, there could not have many kids more into Apollo 11 and the whole space program than my 9-year-old self. Put it this way: Leading up to the big event, I began to fill a shoebox with articles I'd clipped from newspapers relating to all things space exploration. I also had this huge book on astronomy passed down to me from my older brother, and I knew a helluva lot more back then about the planets, their moons and orbits than I do now.

I remember keeping the shoeboxes on the floor of my bedroom closet, and at the slightest interest evinced by anyone in my vicinity, I was ready to break out the clips and go over each one while providing a running commentary. At a moment's notice, I'd have my Apollo 11 model set up for a detailed demonstration of precisely how the Eagle landing craft separated from the mother ship Columbia before oh so lightly touching down in the Sea of Tranquility. I was kind of a geeky kid before I got into sports a few years later.

Sadly, the man most of us watched narrate the whole incredible lunar landing passed away just a few days short of the anniversary: Walter Cronkite. There's that famous clip of Cronkite right after the Eagle landed exclaiming, "Man on the moon... Oh boy!" and then removing his glasses as if in disbelief of what his eyes were showing him.

For centuries Man had dreamed of somehow escaping the bounds of Earth and reaching the moon. For a country mired in an unpopular war thousands of miles away from home, the lunar landing was the ultimate feel-good moment and the payoff to an 8-year commitment set in motion by JFK -- albeit with the help of scientists with rather unsavory pasts.

But somehow I think the late great Cronkite got it wrong when he said: "500 years from now they will be celebrating the first landing on the moon and the first walk on the moon." Acknowledging, yes, the way we mark Lewis & Clark's voyage of discovery in the history books or Chris Columbus' three jaunts across the Atlantic on the calendar; but as far as celebrating and being emotionally involved across the next five centuries, I don't see it. Interest in the space program peaked that very night 40 years ago, and it's been steadily waning ever since. Ask yourself what got more interest: the actual moonwalk or Michael Jackson's moonwalking across a stage?

Sometimes I gaze up at a full moon and have a real hard time believing it's possible to land a spaceship on such a distant body, whether manned or unmanned, over 240,000 miles away. Now, just to be clear, I'm not a moon hoax conspiracy advocate. But it's the sheer implausibility of it all -- looking up at that big hunk of cheese in the sky and imagining a spaceship taking three of your fellow human beings there and back -- that undoubtedly drives many a moon landing skeptic. And as you might expect, there's no shortage of interesting fabrication scenarios.

Fueling the fertile minds of the roughly 6% of Americans who doubt the landing actually took place, just four days ago NASA admitted that 45 videotapes recording the actual landing were erased sometime ago -- meaning precious little actual footage remains of perhaps the landmark event in history. So the timeline goes something like this: Three years ago NASA couldn't find the tapes, then they turned up a few days ago demagnetized -- evidently some bureaucrat's idea of a cost-saving measure. And now as a consolation, just in time for the 40th anniversary, NASA is releasing digitally restored highlights.

But the signal the TV stations were broadcasting that July night 40 years ago came from network cameras filming the NASA monitors in Houston, hence the extremely low picture quality -- while the much clearer direct feed from the lunar camera to mission control has never been viewed by the public, and now in all likelihood never will be because of the tape-erasing fiasco. You can see where skeptics might wonder whether a government agency is deliberately withholding the visual documentation because it doesn't want a high-tech examination of its veracity.

The blueprints of the lunar module and rover have also gone missing. One major question mark voiced by the landing deniers revolves around whether the Eagle craft's foil-thin walls and the astronauts' spacesuits were advanced enough to withstand the dangerous radiation levels of the moon.

As for all the moon rocks the mission brought back? Well, the conspiracy crowd has an explanation for that too: The rocks brought back from the Moon are almost identical in composition to rocks collected in documented expeditions by NASA scientists to Antarctica two years earlier (led by ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun). Throw in a little Stanley Kubrick post-production, and you've got one mind-blowing covert operation! But if you're one of the almost 90% of Americans polled who believe we indeed landed those men in funny white suits on the Moon, tonight's your night to go a little loony.


Angel said...

I am so glad my mother thinks the internet is evil. That means she'll most likely never read this post. If she read those points, she would celebrate right to the grave because she has always been absolutely convinced we never landed on the moon. Of course, she doesn't believe dinosaurs ever existed either.

The Warden said...

I can't believe it's only 6% who don't buy it; that poll was from 1999. There were certainly a lot of motives for faking it at the time. I think I'm about 75-25 in favor of we did land. Dinosaurs? Pretty much 100% sure they existed, thanks to the Museum of Natural History!

justin said...

Not too sure about the landing myself, especially when you consider the billions spent since then on contractors with political ties. Would much rather discuss this moonwalk though than any other. One of the biggest fubars in history "destroying" those original tapes. Seems disturbing all the question marks in history blurring fact and fiction. Not enough people question reality as we are spoon fed through out life. Once you start questioning though it never seems to end and there is very little reward in that only frustration and anger. I'm drifting off again Warden so I'll just thank you for the great read.

The Warden said...

I gotta admit there are some tempting conspiracy theories out there. Maybe it's just the way my mind works, but I'll never believe one guy shot either JFK or RFK. Still don't believe the 9/11 official story on Flight 93, for one thing. And the more I read about a possible moon hoax, the more I realize a landing fake was not beyond the capability of the military-industrial complex.

Angel said...

I'm not sure I can keep coming back to this blog. It's starting to creep me out, which is exactly why I know I'll be back.

My mother would argue how do we KNOW those bones are dinosaur bones. After all, if we landed on the moon we can surely fake some old bones...

ib said...

Great post, warden, and I've been so busy decorating the walls of my own blog with NASA related shit, I almost missed it.

Didn't make the 'Cronkite passing' connection prior to the anniversary bash, but that makes sense given that we had our own '69 presenters over here on this side of the Atlantic.

Surprisingly, perhaps, only a tiny part of me doubts the veracity of the landing too. I was too consumed with my G.I. Joe Moon Landing capsule cash-in at the time to pay attention to the potential for a big fix. Despite my well-developed admiration for healthy measures of cynicism in the intervening years I still can't really bring myself to doubt it.

That doesn't mean for one second, though, that I don't believe the Space Agency was capable of fielding all manner of dirty tricks.

Astronomy Domine, brother.

ib said...

By the way, fantastic illustrating picture on "The Eagle Has Landed" cover story.

The Warden said...

ib: I didn't know G.I. Joe was known outside the U.S., never mind that there was a moon landing connection! And as you say, I really want to believe the moon landing happened the way they said it did, but we've been lied to so many times over the years, it really wouldn't shock me to learn it was a fabricated event.

ib said...

Yes. In the UK Palitoy (was it ?) marketed him as "Action Man", a far weaker brand name, sadly, but hugely popular.

I had the NASA '69 astronaut outfit and space capsule. Lost it though down through the years...

The newer Action Man figure is a pale imitation of his original incarnation. Oh. And they never got around to marketing a black G.I. Joe here. A friend of mine got one as a present from a relative in the States, I recall.

Viva Roswell.