That’s Mars. There, in the picture to the left.
And, yeah. That’s a picture of a robot’s shadow stretching across the dry Martian soil.
No doubt you read about it or heard it on the news. Mars robot blah blah blah. Opportunity Rover yadda yadda yadda. Conditions that would make the evolution of carbon-based lifeforms possible… and so on.
Business as usual.
But it wasn’t always like this.
When I was a kid, it seemed wondrous that the Russians had got a crude, unmanned satellite to orbit the earth a few times. Amazing when the U.S. put a man on top of a big, intercontinental ballistic missle, pointed it straight up (instead of aiming it in the direction of Russia) and shot him into the lower reaches of outer space.
To say that my greatgrandmother — born in the early 1870’s, less than a decade after the end of the US Civil war — and who was my babysitter/nanny half the week, didn’t believe such a thing was possible was something of an understatement.
She didn’t believe the earth was round.
That’s what she said. And if you pressed her — as I once did, asking, Well, how could you fly around the world, if it wasn’t round? — she might reply, I don’t think they can fly around it. I don’t think they can fly at all. It’s some kind of trick. But your mother and father asked me not to talk about it with you.
There were a lot of things she wasn’t supposed to say around me. She came from anti-slavery people, to be sure, but she also grew up in a very different time… to say she was politically incorrect was to be guilty of another whopping understatement. She wouldn’t let my best friend into the house with me when she was there. I won’t be alone in a house with an Irishman! When my best friend was, like, eight years old.
About a decade later, I’d be coming home from a long day slinging hamburgers in a little joint by the Newport pier and find both my World War II generation parents glued to the TV, very uncharacteristically, in the middle of the day. I went into the kitchen to make a snack.
Don’t you want to come see? They’re just about to come out of the lunar landing capsule. Man’s about to set foot on the moon!
Yeah, yeah. Man on the moon.
The simple space shots of my youth had been so exciting, yet here I was, too preoccupied making a sandwich to rush in to catch every moment. I was, it must be said, 18 years old.
As I sauntered into the den, a paper towel catching crumbs from the cracked wheat and cheese sandwich in my hands, Neil Armstrong was just easing down the ladder.
Of course, we couldn’t make out at the time that he’d uttered his famous “One small step for man…” line. It was pretty garbled.
But I was finally kind of impressed.
Anyway, that was then and this is now and man hasn’t set foot on another heavenly body since that troubled but heady era of the late 60s and early 70s.
At the time, the moon effort seemed extraordinarily high tech — and, certainly, for its era, it was.
But I think back to my old man watching that moon landing only a little more than two decades since he and about 16 other million GIs beat back the Nazis and Hirohito’s troops in World War II. My dad was assigned (on the ground) to a squadron of B-24’s in southern Italy — pretty much like the air corps units in the book and movie versions of Catch-22. If you saw the movie, you saw the kind of planes they flew… a couple engines, a wing and tail, a radio, some guns and a small load of bombs. Not much tech. Pretty much fly by the seat of your pants stuff.
And, now, almost forty years after that moon walk, knowing what I know now, I think back to that rocket, capsule, and lunar landing module and the primitive computational and navigational equipment they were using and the fact that it was a lot closer to the B-24’s my old man’s squadron was flying than to the incredibly high tech, seeing/smelling/hearing/almost thinking robots we now send regularly to other planets — and I’m dumbstruck by the magnitude of the accomplishment of that first flight to the moon.
Amazing. Really amazing.
(C)2007, TK Major