The Space Race Is Over

This morning, in honor of Neil Armstrong’s passing, I listened to “The Space Race Is Over,” a song from about 10 years ago by Billy Bragg. It is the only pop song tribute (I know of) to the dream of space travel and the achievement of landing on the moon. The song is sentimental, heartfelt, and devoid of irony. If you haven’t heard it, here it is:

Listening to it this morning choked me up.

On July 20th, 1969, I had just turned 20. I was waitressing in a coffee shop in King’s Canyon National Park. I had asked for that night off, and had been given it. I planned to find an available TV, park myself in front of it, and watch the historic moment. But late that afternoon,the manager made a last-minute substitution. I was suddenly scheduled to work. I warned him, “I’m watching this thing. I don’t care what happens.” He assured me it would be okay to stop and watch when the first step happened.

I worked the counter that night, which was good; it kept me more or less in one place, near one of the TVs that had been brought out and scattered throughout the dining room. The landing had happened many minutes previously–it was a long time; I remember that–and we waited and waited and waited….

We couldn’t see that much. I wasn’t sure what we were seeing. It was all black shadows and indecipherable shapes against gray lunar surface. The minutes stretched on. The TV commentator kept saying, “Any moment now….”

Some man behind me barked for a cup of coffee.

I turned around and said, “This only happens once.” I turned back to the TV. I really didn’t care. I wasn’t missing this.

I grew up on fifties science fiction movies and books. One of the first books in my personal library was The Golden Book of Astronomy: a Child’s Introduction to the Wonders of Space. I had been waiting for this moment all my life. I would not have it stolen from me by some stupid clown who wanted a stupid cup of coffee.

It happened. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. He said the words. It was blurry, but I saw it. In that moment, I was still young enough, the world was still new enough, that I still believed I might get there someday myself.

I turned around. The man who wanted the cup of coffee had left.

Neil Armstrong always deflected attention from himself; rightfully so, as there was nothing more special about him than Buzz Aldrin or any of the others who made the journey, to say nothing of the massive effort of all who made the program a success. It was a journey for all of us, and Armstrong knew that. (It is worth noting that not everyone in the spotlight is capable of making that sort of distinction.) I was sorry to hear of his passing; I’d always thought of him as being younger than eighty-two.

So this morning, I listened to Billy Bragg’s tribute to manned space travel. These lines stand out:

It might look like some empty gesture/To go all that way just to come back

But don’t offer me a place out in cyberspace/Cos where the hell’s that at?

Cyberspace is what we got instead of regular nonstop service to the moon. I’m not complaining. I can’t help be aware, though, that no matter how fabulous the possibilities of this tool I use every day, it is not a place. It is virtual. At its bottom, it is no different than a movie. We are seeing fabulous video of Curiosity and its doings on Mars, but it, too, is virtual. It is not going to a place, because no one is there. Being there is different. Having a fellow human go there is different.

I’m well aware that, if I travel to the moon, the lunar wind cannot blow in my hair, and I will not wiggle my toes in any of the mares, nor enjoy the gentle scent of moon lilacs on the night air. It ain’t that kind of place. But I would see the beautiful Earth in the sky, and I would feel the odd lightness of the moon’s lighter gravity. I could bounce like a kangaroo. I could bounce like the astronauts did. I would be on the moon.

Thank you, Neil Armstrong, and all the others who followed, for going there for us.


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