Small steps, giant leaps
If I recall right, it was toward noon of a Monday. Teachers had cancelled their classes, there was nothing they could teach that held the weight of what all of humanity could watch on the small screen. That was the first time man would ever set foot on the moon.
To this day, I recall that scene in black-and-white. That was because the TV screens at the time were so, generally of sizes that were smaller than today’s LCD PC monitors. I watched it at a neighbor’s house, we had no TV then, and waited along with a crowd—the entire neighborhood had come to watch—for Neil Armstrong to step out of the capsule and hop on to the ground. When he did, none of us greeted it with cheers and applause. We greeted it with awed silence, not unlike the way we did the consecration at Mass. It was at once something so near and so distant, so real and so phantasmagoric, so familiar and so alien. It was only when Neil Armstrong spoke, his voice a mere crackle on the audio, that we broke into cheers.
We could barely make out what he said. As we would learn later, that was, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as sublimely eloquent a line as you could get. Which it was: A small step for humans, a giant leap for humankind.
Life Magazine carried a story of the landing and pictures of Armstrong bouncing on the very dead Sea of Tranquility, which have since become iconic. Inside looking out, Armstrong himself would look back on earth and see it not unlike the way we see a quarter moon, except that it was blue instead of yellow, instead that it looked lush instead of barren. He too was awed to silence by the sight, at once so near and so distant, so real and so phantasmagoric, so familiar and so alien.
He would say later that the experience of looking at the earth from the moon was a profoundly religious one. You could not see the earth from the moon without being dumbfounded by the vastness of the cosmos, by the majesty and mystery of the universe. You could not see the earth from the vantage point of the moon without feeling the presence of the transcendent or unfathomable, if not the divine. You felt at once both proud and humbled. You felt at once both triumphant and insignificant.
Today, 43 years after the event, the moon landing remains the awe-inspiring thing it was then. But with a difference. That difference is not that “earthlings,” as the science fiction movies of the 1950s put it, have gone to the moon several times and even landed a spacecraft in Mars, which has somewhat muted that accomplishment. It is that with it now goes the recollection as well of what was happening at the time back on earth. From the moon, the earth might have looked like a quiet and serene place, a thing full of promise and contentment, a paradise floating in the vastness and aridity of space. But it was nothing of the kind right inside it.
At the time Armstrong landed on the moon, the country that sent him there had also been sending tens of thousands of Vietnamese screaming into the afterlife. The screaming is literal: That was what the children, whose flesh was ripped off their bodies by napalm, were doing as they died. More than a million Vietnamese survivors today are severely handicapped or suffer from various diseases from it. I just visited the Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City last weekend—it was through them that the Viet Cong escaped the carpet bombing of the area and brought the war to the invaders—and thought it was a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit. One small step for the Vietnamese, one giant leap for freedom.
At the time Armstrong landed on the moon, Mother Teresa had just gone international, putting up hospices, orphanages and relief centers outside of India in other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The depth of worldwide poverty and misery alongside the height of avarice and greed astonished her, and she was determined to do her bit for God and man. I thought it was a testament to the capacity of humankind to transcend itself. One small step for caring, one giant leap for compassion.
At the time Armstrong landed on the moon, a man named Martin Luther King had been struck down by an assassin’s bullet the year before as he stood on a hotel balcony. Which led to a frenzy of rioting by grieving and aggrieved African-Americans, though that term did not exist then. The year previously, Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing to fight in a war against a people that he said never did him any harm. I thought it was a testament to the human capacity to endure and prevail. One small step for emancipation, one giant leap for impossible dreams.
Last week, I watched the news on Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN, and saw the photographs of Mars sent home by space explorer Curiosity. Alongside it was news of the violence in Syria having spread to Lebanon, one footage showing young men in a debris-strewn town firing at a nearby building with assault rifles. Alongside it was news about Iranian officials scoffing at retaliatory action against them if they should pursue their uranium-enrichment program. Alongside it was news about the American Tea Party vowing to restore their country’s strength which the liberals, also called communists, in their midst had destroyed.
I remembered again Cat Stevens’ song, which began, “Well I think it’s fine, building jumbo planes/ Or taking a ride on a cosmic train/ Switch on summer from a slot machine…./I know we’ve come a long way,/ We’re changing day to day,/ But tell me, where do the children play?” It’s a wonderfully poetic way of saying: We’re conquering outer space.
When will we begin to conquer the inner one?
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