With the death of Neil Armstrong on August 25 the media was flooded with commentary and pronouncement about the first manned moon landing of the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Everyone agreed on its significance as a pinnacle of human success—the ultimate ‘A’ on our collective report card. As the official White House statement put it: “when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”
I’m not so sure. I think something far more profound happened that day, forever changing our feelings for each other and what it means to be human.
It was the summer of 1969. Things were different back then, but in some ways not so different from today. Change was in the air. Some were rushing to embrace it, others were digging in to stop it. On break from college, I was hitchhiking home to Chicago from the East Coast and got a ride that morning in western Pennsylvania. The driver was white, working class, a little older than I was, and between jobs. I think he was a Vietnam veteran. We passed the time trading stories and working the radio dial. A few hours into the drive, the music was interrupted by an announcement. History was calling—the Apollo moon landing was about to be televised. I turned to the stranger behind the wheel and said with absolute earnestness, “Listen, man, we have to see this thing happen. We can’t not see it.”
He agreed, but what to do? We were in Eastern Ohio by now, deep into the rural Midwest. The first thing was to get off the toll road. I figured we’d drive into the nearest small town and find a bar with a TV. The town we found was small alright—I don’t even remember its name. But we couldn’t find an open bar, and time was running out as we careened down potted streets past rows of run-down bungalows. “Five minutes until touch down,” the radio announcer intoned. “Pull over!” I shouted, preparing myself for what I’d decided was our only hope. As the car lurched to a stop I jumped out, ran up to the nearest house and pounded on the front door. It swung open immediately, as if we’d been expected, and just beyond the man of the house, I could see the rest of the extended family, and maybe a neighbor or two. They were all pulled up around the TV watching intently. None of them even turned their heads to see what the commotion was. I focused on the man in front of me and said, “Look, I know you don’t know me—hey, I don’t even know that guy out there in the car I just pulled up in, but in a minute they’re going to land on the moon, and we’ve got to see it. Please, please let us watch with you.” He didn’t even think about it. He just stepped back, swung the door open a little wider, and said, “Get in here.”
We pulled up a couple footstools and took our place in the crowded room. The screen was small but we had no problem sensing the significance of what was happening. We could feel the families in the other living rooms of that town drawn up in silence and awe around their TV sets. We felt them doing the same in the small towns of the surrounding countryside, in the cities and suburbs across the Midwest and out to both coasts, over the oceans and around the world. The world was watching as we were, eyes on the TV image or turned skyward, ears leaning into radios, no one breathing, just suspended in the magic of the moment.
And then, with an awkward little hop the first human foot landed in the lunar dust, sending a poof of it into the nearly weightless air, and the words were spoken and heard by an expectant world through the crackling static of great distance: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” What happened with the sound of those words was a strange thing indeed. It was as if something came out of the TV and washed over everyone there in the room and continued on through the opposite wall and out over the town and around the world, and then a few seconds later, after circling the globe, I swear we could feel it come back again, through the other wall, exalting us. It was like a wave of kinship that had flooded the world, turning a planet full of strangers into a single family where the only bond that mattered was the one shared by all—we were the inhabitants of planet Earth.
And so, for the first time we earth dwellers became aware of the totality of human existence; life, not in its endless variety and ever-expanding confusion, but life as a global phenomena contained on the surface of a sphere, a tiny spec of blue-green swirl in the endless inky void of infinite space, with only the thinnest envelope of vaporous atmosphere standing between warm life and frozen extinction. How unimaginably precious, terrifyingly precarious, and shockingly absurd it was to think that there might as easily have been nothing. Is it any wonder that as Armstrong looked back from the moon and spoke to the rest of us here on Earth, there was a shuddering disturbance in the collective field of human consciousness?
There was a huddling then, a shifting of the props on the stage set of life as the differences we’d placed so carefully between us fell away. What was strange became familiar, and we all moved a little closer together.
It’s been over four decades since the moon landing, and what started as a communal feeling and a shifting perspective has become the agreed-upon facts-on-the-ground of our time. The end of the Cold War, the advent of globalization, the consolidation of worldwide agricultural, commodity, and financial markets, and the rise of the Internet and satellite communication have indeed produced the so-called global village Canadian philosopher Marshall McCluhan predicted back in the 1960s.
That’s not to say it’s been easy. There’s been a lot of kicking and screaming along the way, and the change is far from over. As with all families, the assimilation of the in-laws is generating plenty of friction. But for better or for worse, there’s no going back. We’re family now, and perhaps we can thank our unassuming Uncle Neil for that.