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Published: Sunday, 7/19/2009

Swimming upward toward a dream

ARCHIBALD MacLeish called the mission a wonder to us, unattainable, a longing past the reach of longing, saying that [t]hree days and three nights we journeyed, steered by farthest stars.

Norman Mailer wrote of this slim angelic mysterious ship of stages that moved into the heavens, slow as Melville s Leviathan might swim, slowly as we might swim upward in a dream looking for the air.

Eugene Ionesco said it gives us vast perspectives.

Forty years ago this week, we landed on the moon.

Very little else that humankind has accomplished since then has spawned poetry and elegy, though much else has had the effect, as Ionesco put it, of breaking down the wall of our smallness.

Now we have four decades of perspective on the achievement of Apollo 11, of America s race to the moon and of perhaps the most surprising fact about it that no human steps have broken the moon s dusty surface in 37 years, longer than the generally recognized definition of a generation. We went, we conquered, we didn t bother to go back, though God left the light on.

Maybe because the very act of getting there was enough.

Charles Lindbergh, who knew something about symbolism and heroism, called the moon landing a flowering of civilization toward space, and though columnists should be chary of citing Lindbergh on any matter besides aviation, he suggested at the time that the value of the trip to the moon might well rest on how we deal with its implications on Earth.

The voyage to the moon changed things, maybe everything. The lunar samples that were returned from a half-dozen lunar sites led scientists to conclude that the moon could have been produced by the collision of a Mars-sized body and the Earth.

That was completely unexpected. And it tells us that even science, which sometimes appears to be a discipline of the expected, is in fact the province of the unexpected. The human lesson is simple, and not confined to science: Humility and curiosity are the keys to understanding the world that surrounds us.

There were good reasons we went to the moon, primarily geopolitical, though some more political than geo.

The Kennedy administration knew that the Soviet Union could launch lethal payloads with its big boosters much more easily than the United States could. And the Soviets were posting a remarkable early record in space: Sputnik, Laika (the first dog in space), Yuri Gagarin (the first man in orbit), Valentina Tereskova (the first woman in space), the first spacewalk, the first rendezvous. The danger was that the world would conclude that the communists had put the West on the ropes.

John F. Kennedy asked his advisers what the United States could do to show its superiority. He landed on the moon long before Americans actually arrived. It was a long-enough goal that the United States could prevail despite the Soviet head start, but not so long a goal that the world would lose interest.

In truth, the race to the moon was a lot closer than we imagine today, when we know that the United States made it and the Soviet Union never did.

The key to the American victory in the space race very likely was the decision to send Apollo 8 on its stirring orbital mission around the moon in December, 1968 propelled into space on the first manned Saturn V, a booster that at that time was riddled with problems. In all of the dehumanizing technology that we remember from Apollo, says Jay Apt, who rode four shuttle missions into space, it was the human courage that pulled it out.

The Apollo 11 flight was thrilling from start to finish, beginning with the launch itself the frequency of the vibration of the Saturn V was so low that it shook the intestines of those who witnessed it continuing with Neil Armstrong s one small step and concluding with the safe return to Earth of the astronauts. Touching the moon had been a human aspiration for centuries, dating from Cicero and Lucian to Voltaire, Verne, Poe, and Dumas. In one week it was transformed from longtime dream to real-time drama.

Richard Nixon called this week 40 years ago the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation, an overstatement to be sure, particularly since we should not forget that part of the world yawned. The Paris newspaper Le Monde ran a front page editorial titled, Oui, mais pourquoi?

In the years that followed a certain lunar ennui set in, and it became common to begin indignant sentences with the phrase: If we can go to the moon, then surely we can

It may not actually follow that if we can go to the moon then we should be able to cure breast cancer, provide housing to the poor, figure out a way to prevent traffic snarls during rush hour, or find a surefire way to advance a runner from second base to third with a weak-hitting pitcher at bat, but that did not stop anyone from asking. Yet in the 40 years that have passed since Mr. Armstrong proclaimed from Tranquility Base that the Eagle has landed, it is increasingly clear that the most important legacy of that day may well be the if-we-can-go-to-the-moon construction. Because even though the phrase is marinated in cynicism, it is also bathed in idealism.

At the beginning of the 1960s, we did not know if we could actually go to the moon. Now we know we can (and before 2020, the United States plans to return, perhaps preceded by India, Japan, and China). Now we know that the most ancient desires of the human race can be fulfilled. Now we know that the improbable, the impossible, and the immortal are within our reach.

Maybe it was not the greatest week in the history of the world, but this knowledge is surely the greatest tribute to the greatest attribute of the human race, and it has been ours for 40 years.

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