Were You There?

The moon landing on July 20, 1969 is one of those historic events that causes you to remember instantly where you were, whom you were with, and what you were doing when it happened. It’s like Dealey Plaza that way. Or the Challenger spacecraft. Or 9-11. The memory of these events has been seared into our collective psyche forever.

I can still see our teachers, all nuns, and hear the swish of their habits as they rushed about on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I figured something was up when they removed the plastic cover of the television and turned on Walter Cronkite for the entire class to watch. They never did that before. Years later, driving home from work in Monterey, California, I heard on the radio that the Challenger spacecraft exploded. Space flight had become so routine by then that people had taken it for granted. And I was in Washington DC for a 9:00 am meeting with my dissertation advisor on September 11, 2001. An hour later the building was put on lockdown.

The moon landing differs from these events, because it wasn’t a tragedy that people witnessed as they gathered around their television sets but a moment of technical and artistic awe. Technical for obvious reasons. No one at the time could imagine landing men on the moon let alone returning them safely to Earth. The engineering for that seemed daunting to all but a handful of German rocket scientists. In fact, a common way back then to express doubt over something was to say that they’d put a man on the moon before the thing in question would happen, meaning don’t hold your breath.

Gaylord Perry, maybe the greatest pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, is a classic example of this, hitting his first home run thirty minutes after Neil Armstrong announced to Mission Control in Houston that the Eagle had landed. His hitting ability was so bad that he had been told for years that they’d put a man on the moon before he hit a home run.

The moon mission was artistic, because it forced a fundamental shift in the way we saw ourselves. It rekindled not just our vision and drive but a spirit of exploration and risk. In a speech at Rice University in 1962, President Kennedy reminded Americans that we took on the challenge of going to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard and that doing so would “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

I would like to think that we continue to do the same today. Is there anything more important than organizing our lives for a noble purpose? Nobility of purpose does not depend on scale. We do not have to affect a lot of people. Parenthood is proof of that, but even there the number of people we have an impact on can reach thousands. So, too, with the many ways we relate to others professionally and personally, especially in friendship.

To speak of a noble purpose is to speak of mission. There was a time in my life when I avoided people who claimed they were on a mission, judging them to be either too radical or simply crazy. But then I began to look at mission as vocation, as being called toward something bigger than my own little hobbit hole. I suppose that’s what happens when suddenly we have to care for others. We see things from a greater distance, not unlike those photos of Earth taken from the moon.

There is a story told about Kennedy visiting the NASA space center in 1962 and coming across a janitor cleaning the floor. Variations of the story exist, which has become legendary, but they have Kennedy introducing himself to the man and then asking what he was doing. “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon,” the janitor replied.

Apparently, the man spoke in earnest, seeing his job as part of the effort to increase our knowledge of the universe and, therefore, ourselves. That’s vocation. By some accounts, Kennedy was so impressed that he added a section to his Rice University speech having to do with “why.” Why go to the moon? Why climb Mount Everest? Because they are there.

I like to think I participated in that effort during the hot summer of 1969, along with a few billion other people on the planet. How? I sat with my parents, eating pizza and watching Neil Armstrong take that giant leap. We were transfixed.

Image credits: feature by Alexandra Vozvyshaeva; top by Robert Karkowski; others by NASA and Pixabay. For more, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture and hardware monopolies.”


  1. Years later, I had the opportunity to tour the Kennedy Space Center, and the bus dropped us off for a few minutes at the launch pad that was used for Apollo 11.

    I looked around at the waves gently lapping against the coral shore, the scrub pine trees scattered here and there, and the shockingly small launch pad (maybe not small, but certainly smaller than I had pictured).

    At that moment, reflecting on the enormity of the entire project, all I could think about was the lofty phrase “man, these guys had balls!“

  2. love the way you write Rob- your interpretation of things is so interesting — I think, when we were pre-teens, we all had such a great feeling of patriotism, that was instilled in us —– I am so glad that our parents, teachers and school did that, and I’m proud of it…always proud to be an American– especially when I think of that day , when we all were glued to our TV’s and with our families, for that great moment in history

    1. Thanks, Mary Ann. Great to hear from you. Yes, patriotism was instilled in us, right down to Mrs. Laznik (?), the librarian at PS 30. Not so sure they do that anymore.

      1. Your post, Were You There? was meaningful, Robert. I appreciated the questions raised and hearing the memorable responses that resonate today. Yes, I treasured the mental snapshots of those events and others. Have you heard the deep, resonating sounds of the bells at a temple, the church bells, or the Muslim call to prayer? Like the questions and responses, the bells seem to call us to listen, to stop, gather and respond. “Were you there?” “Where were you?” Was there one true thing you thought afterwards? Was there a response from you, those you were with, the nation? So, can we still hear the bells in so much noise? Can we stop and gather so that we can respond? What is our response? Our noble response would organize the best of our skills and energies. May it be so.

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