It was a day of miracles and wonders. That much I remember very clearly. One did not need the brainpower of a scientist or the erudition of a philosopher to know it. I was just an 8-year-old boy gazing through a bedroom window at a crescent moon, boggle-minded. People were up there.
July 20, 1969. The internet reminds me that it was a Sunday, so there’s a nearly 100 percent chance that I started the day glumly preparing for church. All the parents were still married in those days, and most of the kids in our fecund suburb on the western edge of the Great Plains were passably compliant. Scrubbed and neat, we all would have been praying that morning for astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — who seemed to me the unluckiest man alive, doomed to circle just above the moon while his fortune-blessed comrades flew down to walk on its pockmarked surface.
That day and the days leading up to it were like a second Christmas. By that I mean they passed with excruciating slowness. It is said that people of a certain age all remember where they were when news came of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. For my slightly younger cohort, Apollo 11 was that universal moment. But a shock leaves a more vivid, more jagged impression than the memory of a long-awaited culmination.
Thus, the waiting itself is among my clearest memories, one long day after another as Apollo 11 seemingly inched across space toward that impossibly distant, yet tantalizingly close, world. History itself became a tedious family road trip with an entire nation asking, “Are we there yet?” Willa Cather once wrote of crossing the prairie: “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.” Even more true of space travel.
Recently, I asked my mother what she remembered of the day. Her answer was characteristic: She recalled her touchingly humane fear for the safety of the crew. I don’t think I gave that a moment’s thought. Little is more abstract to children than some distant adult in peril. My friends and I were wanton with our unconcern. The Vietnam War was raging, and my best friend’s father was over there. Yet our favorite games involved flying imaginary raids and combat in imaginary jungles. We died often, always recovering quickly.
While we were at church, Armstrong and Aldrin floated from the command module into the lander, leaving poor Collins behind. Another infinity dragged by as the little craft flew toward the moon. Years later, I learned that this trip was a nerve-jangling succession of blaring false alarms, a missed landing zone and a nearly spent fuel supply. At the time, we had only the laconic voices of the astronauts and Mission Control to shape our impressions, and they made the whole thing sound about as exciting as sweeping the garage. I went outside to kill time, popping occasionally into the den to check on their progress.
The Eagle landed after lunchtime. And, now, any doubt that these voyagers were grown-ups at heart was erased, for rather than flinging open the hatch and bounding down the ladder, they sat inside the lander doing who knows what for hours. This was incomprehensible, and as the afternoon crept past with no change, I went from anticipation to annoyance to anger.
At last, as if programmed for our prime-time enjoyment, a ghostly image appeared on the little TV set — a picture beamed from the moon. All television was a form of magic to me, how they chopped up a picture and sent it invisibly to millions of places simultaneously to be reassembled inside warm boxes of glowing tubes. But this was another order of miracle altogether: television from another world.
We saw Armstrong descend rung by rung as slowly as spring sap until he hovered just above the surface. Then, finally, his boot was on the moon.
The other thing Mom remembers is that she realized — as Armstrong and Aldrin went about their lunar chores, scooping soil, planting the flag, deploying experimental devices — that we were out of milk for the baby’s bedtime bottle. She had to tear herself away from the television to run to the convenience store.
And isn’t that the essence of what soon happened to the United States? The demands of Earth — of daily lives down here — reclaimed our attention and tore us away from the men on the moon. The Apollo program expired a few years later.
It turned out there was nothing up there beyond the sheer fact of the moon itself. “Magnificent desolation,” Aldrin said as he looked around, and he was precisely right on both points. We’ll find it unchanged if we go back.
And beyond? That’s where space gets really big. Where even light needs years to travel from place to place. If that’s our next destination, we had better get used to waiting.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time magazine.