A lovely, nostalgic song about a moment that lives on in memory as the high point of a better time to be alive.
On July 20 it will be fifty years since Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the fragile little spacecraft named Eagle and planted his feet in the Sea of Tranquility. It was a moment grade school nerds like me had been anticipating for practically our entire lives, having followed the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs since we were old enough to look at the pictures in Life magazine. For a lot of us it was a fascination bordering on obsession. We pored over the details of the technology, the size of the rockets, how the Gemini capsule was bigger than Mercury but smaller than the Apollo Command Module, and brushed up on details such as how fuel cells manufactured electricity in space. We knew the names and mission titles of the astronauts, and we read up on how the landing would work, with the orbiting Command Module piloted by Michael Collins dropping the Lunar Module containing Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong down to the surface. We familiarized ourselves with the landing zone – I had a National Geographic map of the Moon on my bedroom wall, with a pin stuck in Mare Tranquillitatus. There was a model of the Lunar Module on my bedroom shelf, and a lot of the kids I knew had three foot high models of the entire Saturn V Rocket, a coveted kit that was a little too expensive for me to purchase. I had the stats memorized; the Saturn V was 363 feet tall, weighed almost 3,000 tons, and produced seven and a half million pounds of thrust. To get to the Moon its third booster stage, the S-IV-B, would reach a velocity of over 20,000 MPH for “trans-lunar injection”, and it would take about three days to get there.
July 20, 1969 was a hot day in Halifax, and when the house heated up to the point of discomfort my brother and I sometimes pitched a makeshift tent in the backyard and slept outdoors, where it was cooler. In my memory, that’s where we were when one of our parents – I recall it was Dad, my older brother Mark thinks Mom – came to fetch us, so we could watch the astronauts get out and walk on the Moon on live TV. We both recall being told that in years to come we’d be glad we were there to see it. It was about 11 PM, and the image on our black and white console TV was indistinct, making it hard to tell what was going on, but we were there, our family and hundreds of millions of others, watching it go down in real time. Only the Americans, my Dad said. Only the Americans would do that on live TV. If something went wrong, well, everybody, everywhere, would see it happen, just as we would have if that huge rocket had blown up on launch. But of course the Americans were happy to gamble that nothing would go wrong. It wasn’t even a consideration, really. Only them.
I once heard somewhere that when Neil Armstrong planted his boots in the Moon dust, a wild cheer rattled the walls of Russia’s equivalent to Mission Control, where they’d been following the mission closely. The Soviet Union’s bid to beat America to the Moon had literally gone up in flames with the catastrophic failure of their N1 L3 rocket, almost as big and powerful as the Saturn V, which blew up in the early stages of repeated test flights until the program was abandoned. Up on screen, they were watching the Americans beat them in the Space Race and take the glory, but at that moment, so the story went, it didn’t matter; they cheered.
I don’t know if that story is true, but I’d like to believe it is. The Space Race was a Cold War competition between the US and USSR, no doubt, each holding up its space achievements as emblematic of national superiority. Yet the drive for the Moon was in some ways bigger than geopolitical rivalry. The race was about winning, yes, but it was also about the aspirations of all of humankind, and it was possible to believe that those clean-cut, archetypally American astronauts were going there for all of us. They seemed to think so too – upon landing, they planted an American flag, sure, but the plaque they left behind didn’t talk about the triumph of the United States, or even point out the mission’s country of origin on the map of the globe:
We came in peace for all mankind. Like Dad said, only the Americans.
The Sixties weren’t all great, especially if you weren’t white and middle class. It was a time of social upheaval, student riots, inner city riots, toxic race relations, and a seemingly widening, unbridgeable “generation gap”, when our heroes were repeatedly assassinated and the US military was pounding the crap out of a previously obscure corner of South East Asia. Yet the Sixties also gave us thrills and episodes of wonder the like of which nobody who wasn’t there has ever experienced, and we boomers have missed them ever since. Even a left wing activist like Billy Bragg, who might be expected to take a jaundiced view of all things American, pines for the feeling we all shared about Project Apollo.
What could be more evocative of the shambolic state of post-Trump America, and its lost standing in the world, than remembering Apollo, and how the whole of humanity was taken along for the most inspiring ride of the century? That July night in 1969 we were all pulling for them, and if the Americans were prepared to define themselves for posterity simply as people from Planet Earth, then for that moment we were all Americans. They’d carried all of our hopes and dreams along with them, all the way to the surface of the Moon, and when they got there we all looked back in spiritual awe at the little blue ball where, almost inconceivably, every one of us lived.
That was them, once. For all their flaws, that was them. Now look. Lots of people don’t even believe it any more. If you type “moon landing” into Google all you get back are conspiracy theories that it was all a lie, a hoax, filmed on a soundstage somewhere. I guess it always seemed almost too wonderful to be true, and must appear particularly implausible to younger skeptics looking at America as it is today, with its mean-spirited politics, inequities, violence, fumbling incompetence, and its craven, farcical liar of a President. You mean to tell us that those guys did that? Get real.
It’s enough to make you weep.
I see they’ve reissued that model kit I couldn’t afford when I was eight. I’ve half a mind to get one.
One comment on “Song of the Day: Billy Bragg – The Space Race is Over”
From my brother Mark:
As I remember it, it was mom that woke us up, and over our grumbling, said we’d kick ourselves if we missed it. But I could be wrong!
And we weren’t in a tent, it was one of the old flannel sheets that we slung over a tree branch like a lean-to. Remember those old red JC Higgins sleeping bags with the plaid lining?
As you say, only the Americans would do that on live TV. Sure sounds like Dad!