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In memory, after all this time, Apollo resists relegation to the past tense. It is close to midnight, and the summer air is warm and still, no heavier than usual for Florida. We are driving toward a light in the distance. Its preternatural glow suffuses the sky ahead but, strangely, leaves the land where we are in natural darkness.
After the first checkpoint, miles back, where guards inspected our badges and car pass, the source of the light comes into view. The sight is magnetic, drawing us on. Strong xenon beams converge on Pad 39A, highlighting the mighty Saturn 5 rocket as it is being fueled. Our car radio tells us the countdown is proceeding on schedule.
In the 2007 documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon,” he said: “People, instead of saying, ‘Well, you Americans did it,’ everywhere they said: ‘We did it!’ We, humankind, we, the human race, we, people did it!” The inclusiveness of the experience was remarkable, given the space race’s origins in an atmosphere of fear and belligerence.
By the end of 1972, the last of the 12 men to walk on the Moon packed up and returned home. The uncertain future for human spaceflight muted the celebrations at Houston.
At the conclusion of that flight, Apollo 17, I solicited historians’ assessment of the significance of these early years in space. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. predicted that in 500 years, the 20th century would probably be remembered mainly for humanity’s ventures beyond its native planet. At the close of the century, he had not changed his mind.
The United States has now embarked on a program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 to establish a more permanent research presence there and prepare for eventual human flight to Mars. But in the absence of the cold war motivation, the effort lacks the money and the political mandate that favored Apollo. Another enterprise on the scale of Apollo is, in the foreseeable future, unimaginable.
Spaceflight is now embedded in our culture, so much so that it is usually taken for granted — a far cry from the old days when the world held its breath for Alan B. Shepard Jr. and John Glenn and watched, transfixed, the scene at Tranquillity Base. That was then; no astronauts today are household names. Yet space traffic is thick and integral to the infrastructure of modern life. Seldom does it cross our minds that our voices and text messages are carried across continents and oceans via satellites. Our weather and the effects of global warming are tracked from space. Our news, including reports of astronaut missions now relegated to back pages, is disseminated through space. We view the spectacular images from the planet Saturn and the far cosmos with less thought to how they were obtained than of the beauty and abiding mystery they call to our attention.
Armstrong then struck a note that resonates with his contemporaries, and that includes me. He and his Apollo 11 crew were born in the same year, 1930, three years before I was; we were the right age at the right time and places to participate in a singular adventure in history, whatever its legacy as seen through the eyes of later generations. “We were really very privileged,” he said, “to live in that thin slice of history where we changed how man looks at himself and what he might become and where he might go.”