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To the Moon Again

For a moment this past week the 1960s were resurrected as NASA’s Artemis rocket lifted into the Florida skies and headed for the moon.

This rocket carried mannequins rather than astronauts, as the Apollo missions did half a century ago, but humans will eventually replace those mannequins and the plan is to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon by 2025.

Can lunar excursions regain the attention they drew for a brief time back in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

I always considered it fortunate that my childhood coincided with one of the most daring exploration periods in history as the United States and the Soviet Union competed to become the first country to land people on the moon. Space travel and speculation about what the future would be like played a significant role in our lives in the 1960s, and it went beyond real astronauts courageously boarding those rockets. On TV we watched Star Trek and Lost in Space. Commercials promoted Tang, the official drink of the astronauts, or so we were told. Our toys included Matt Mason, a 6-inch-tall bendable-figure astronaut who came with space-exploration accessories and bendable-figure astronaut pals.

On the night of July 20, 1969, my family gathered in front of our TV to watch the faint, somewhat eerie image of Neil Armstrong descending the lunar-module ladder to set foot on the moon.

“It’s like watching a movie,” my mother said, perhaps in awe of how in her mere 45 years on the planet the nation had advanced from trying to survive a Depression to spending a fortune to land these men on Earth’s only natural satellite.

I was 11 at the time and remember thinking that we would soon head for Mars, which in my mind was just a sort hop away from the moon. Clearly, I had no concept of planetary distances and the additional time, effort, and technology a journey to Mars required. What’s just as surprising is how quickly the excitement of that July night faded away. Soon after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin completed their historic walk, many of my friends and I grew indifferent to the Apollo missions. Going to the moon remained cool – just not “oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening” cool.

In April of 1972, when I was in eighth-grade, teachers pulled us from our normal classroom work to watch Apollo 16 astronauts John Young and Charles Duke explore the lunar surface. By now the astronauts had an electric-powered lunar-roving vehicle – essentially a moon buggy – that allowed them to drive several miles from their landing site. We jaded 13 and 14-year-olds, raised on rocket launches and lunar excursions, remained unimpressed.

One exasperated teacher turned to another.

“How can they be so bored by this?” she asked. “They take it for granted.”

We could not argue. We did at least appreciate that Young and Duke gave us a momentary reprieve from memorizing historic dates, calculating square roots, and enduring another lecture about the placement of commas.

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