Neil Armstrong on the moon, July 20, 1969. (Buzz Aldrin )
I watched Neil Armstrong take his giant small step onto the moon at my best friend Brian's house. It was July 20 1969, and just before 8 p.m. in L.A., and the sun was still out. Thinking back, I see light filtering in through curtains, pulled shut possibly to help us better feel the history being made (remotely) before our eyes, on a big square black-and-white TV showing a black-and-white picture beamed from 238,900 miles out in space. Or perhaps they were always closed like that.
Things we might otherwise have been doing then and may have been doing right before or afterward included swimming, reading comic books and making recordings on Brian's reel-to-reel. We would have not have missed the moon landing, though — and not only because Brian was an avid junior astronomer who likely knew how far away the moon was, while I had to look it up just now — but because if you were anywhere near a television, the moment demanded you watch. An estimated half a billion people saw Armstrong set foot where no foot had been set before.
When you're a kid, the fictional narratives of television and the real-life stories that television also transmits can blend together: Astronauts were heroes in a way not entirely distinct from the era's invented spies or caped crusaders. Of course, we understood that the danger they faced was of a different order than, say, the danger Will Robinson faced on "Lost in Space," or that menaced the crew of "Star Trek," which went off the air a month before the moon landing. The crew of Apollo 1 was killed in a fire while rehearsing the launch sequence; several other astronauts died in training jet accidents.
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Still, it was as television that we knew it — a decade-long adventure serial that made John Glenn and Scott Carpenter and Alan Shepard and Ed White into household names, a national project such as we may never mount again, and it seemed terribly important to follow along. We would rise early to see the rockets, launched from Florida, three time zones away; the wonder of spaceflight will forever be linked in my mind with the taste of cold cereal and a light miasma of residual sleepiness.
There was the long preamble of large moving structures and figures bustling about to the sound of the explaining anchorman. Then came the countdown, ignition and liftoff, and a smooth white skyscraper improbably rising into the air out of a storm of steam and fire, contracting in minutes to a small smudge of flame on a field of blue as cameras switched to longer and longer lenses and finally gave up the chase.
After that the newsmen and officials with their charts and simulations, often of a most elementary, homemade, science-fair sort. Then the pictures from space: the tour of the capsule, the weightless clowning, the scientific magic of pens spinning in place and spherical water drops floating in air. And later, the return, the splashdown, the explorers pulled from their bobbing capsule, the smiles and waves, the quarantine.
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The whole project itself was as fantastic as fiction, even as TV's weekly fictional science came to seem routine and familiar and plausible. (Teleportation? Beam me up!) Indeed, there are still those who think that's all it was, who believe that it was only on television that we landed on the moon — that it was a hoax, faked on an Earthly soundstage, with the help (some say) of Walt Disney, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.
Armstrong was handsome enough to be play an astronaut on television. I don't suppose this was a requirement for the job, and in any case, his crewmates, Buzz Aldrin, who also walked on the moon, and Michael Collins, who didn't, were good-looking too. That he was soft-spoken made him seem paradoxically all the more charismatic, and by refusing to become the face of spaceflight in later years, he became perhaps its most enduring symbol.
Resigning from NASA in 1971, Armstrong spent the last four decades of his life not being an astronaut. He was nearly 39 when he stepped from the lunar module into the Sea of Tranquillity and 82 when he died Saturday, from complications after heart surgery.
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A couple of years ago, I learned that my old friend Brian had died, of a sudden heart attack. It had been ages since I'd seen him — not so long after the crew of Apollo 17 made the last moon walk, in December 1972.
Walking on the moon is now something that people used to do, in the distant past, like macramé, decoupage and the Hustle. (A moonwalk is just another dance step now, and an old one at that.) Before very long, there will be no one left alive who's walked any ground but the Earth's, and eventually the adventure that was Apollo 11 will fade out of personal human memory. There will just be the pictures, then, as we saw them in the summer of '69, ghostly and blurry, colorless and incomprehensible, an infant's glimpse of a new world.