Ground Control to Major Tom

My daughter suggested I pull the following from the archives. It helped her understand the significance of the Apollo moon missions to those who lived through the changes they brought. My thanks to her for suggesting I retrieve it. Warmest Regards, Nina

Apollo program insigniaDavid Bowie’s Space Oddity came up in my playlist this week and it reminded me of the Apollo moon missions. According to Wiki, the single was released July 11, 1969. Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 capsule onto the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. Was this just some ad man’s idea of serendipitous synchronicity or something more?

To me it is something more. Prior to the Gemini and Apollo missions, spacemen and space exploration were the realm of pulp- and science- fiction, of space aliens, space machismo, muscle men on Mars with faint whiffs of valueless fantasy overlaid with smuttiness. Bowie’s song captures the elements looming large in society’s mind. The bravery needed to step out of a space capsule into the unknown vacuum of space, a space capsule mind you, not a space ship. A capsule that was launched by perching atop a 360 foot rocket, essentially flung into space. The bravery of stepping into space not knowing if the protection you were wearing was enough to keep you safe, breathing, unharmed by radiation, solar wind, the void of space.

We joked everyone knew the moon was made of cheese, the surface unknowable. Only techies and geeks with access to telescopes got to glimpse the moon’s surface. Perhaps if you borrowed dad’s binoculars, the man in the moon’s weeping sadness would blurrily reveal itself to be a world of light and shadow, but the images were new — the rocky, rolling landscape of desolate craters — which we did not know, and had never seen so clearly. While scientists were relatively certain the astronauts would step onto rock, they didn’t know how deep the surface dust would be. Would it be inches or feet deep? Would they be able to maneuver? How would the weak gravitational forces affect motion? Would minor shuffling effort result in uncontrolled jerks and wild over reaction? We thought we knew, but we weren’t certain.

We listened with rapt attention as Major Tom stepped out of his capsule into the unknown of space. I remember it being largely a listening event. While the first moon walk was televised, the visuals were grainy, cloudy, shadowed, and difficult to discern. Who could tell what we were seeing? Later, cleaner, sharper images appeared, but it was something I heard, not something I saw.

Bowie’s Space Oddity captures the time for me, transports me to the age of space exploration, to a 14-year-old’s understanding of bravery, of facing the unknown, of fascination with space, of the hope we might be able to save the world through technology, of a time when I still believed in heroes.

Space Oddity from Space Oddity by David Bowie. Released: 1969. Track 1.

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