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 occurred. 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.
For instance, I can still see our teachers, all nuns, and hear the swish of their habits as they rushed about frantically on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I knew 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 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, perhaps 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.
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.