“Ice!,” my 2-year-old son once exclaimed as he pointed at the Moon in the heavens. I described the Moon as looking like a “communion wafer in the sky” in a poem I wrote about watching hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from a cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Over the years, people imagined that the Moon was made of cheese or that Martians lived on its dark side. In some Asian cultures, there is a fable in which a girl and rabbit (or just the rabbit) reside on this celestial orb. The Moon has captivated humans since time immemorial because it’s the brightest object in the night sky, because we love to dream and tell stories about things we don’t understand, because we didn’t have Netflix and Game of Thrones until recently, and simply because it’s beautiful and a touchstone in the sky for many of our favorite memories.
With each passing year during the 1960s, American astronauts undertook a series of dangerous Apollo missions that brought them closer to actually walking on this chunk of cheese/piece of ice/communion wafer. And then it happened, on July 16, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (pictured below, left to right) lifted off on the command module of the Apollo 11 Saturn V launch vehicle on a mission to land on the Moon.
On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin descended to its surface on the lunar module Eagle, and Armstrong became the first person to ever walk on the Moon’s gray, chalky terrain, with Aldrin soon following.
What an exciting moment! Let’s temporarily table all the legitimate concerns that existed then and today about the cost of the space program and what that money could do to fight poverty and inequality, the lack of gender or ethnic diversity among the astronauts of the 1960s, and the Cold War strategic aspects of the entire endeavor, to simply enjoy the moment. There’s so much wrong with the world, but I think we need to take a deep breath—and a momentary break—to celebrate this great event. The Moon landing was an amazing achievement in humans’ never-ending quest to explore and gain an understanding of things that we had only been able to hypothesize about since recorded human history.
Only 12 men have ever walked on the Moon—the last in 1972. And only 4 are still alive (including Collins and Aldrin). I hope that the next 12 U.S. astronauts who walk on the moon represent the rich tapestry of ethnicites, genders, and cultures that make America so dynamic and great.
Although astronauts brought back 842 pounds of Moon rock to Earth and there are thousands and thousands of photos and radar maps of the Moon, there’s still a lot to learn about the Moon and many people (including myself) are still fascinated by it. And space exploration has brought us a wealth of technologies that make our lives better.
When I see the Moon, I often point and yell, “Luna!,” to my 9-year-old son, my wife, or friends and family. My son still gets excited, but the adults in my life mostly humor me unless it’s a Super Moon, a red-orange eclipsed Moon, or some other All-Star Moon appearance. But seeing the Moon still wows me even though I’ve viewed it frequently in my life. A person my age has been treated to 18,000 nights with the communion-white wafer Moon in the sky (but, of course, I haven’t seen them all). I don’t care if it’s a Super Moon or a sad sliver of the Moon that’s almost hidden by the clouds. I just love seeing the Moon.
During the summer, but sometimes even in the bitter cold of winter, I like to sit outside and simply observe the Moon. Sometimes I think big thoughts (or try to…a few drinks always helps me to think I’m thinking “bigger thoughts” than usual), but most of the time I’m just happy to see this celestial friend in the night sky—whether it’s a blood red harvest Moon or a waxing crescent or gibbous Moon, it’s joined by Saturn or Jupiter in a pretty formation, or it’s simply a garden variety Moon that lights my way when I’m camping or night hiking in the woods.
Taking the time to marvel at the Moon reminds me to slow down and appreciate things we take for granted (my family, my friends, my health, and my general well-being in a country that is sometimes flawed and frustrating, but that provides me a much better quality of life than many people on Earth enjoy only because of the sheer luck that my ancestors chose to emigrate to Chicagoland from Germany in the 1860s and from Italy in the 1920s (just like many families are doing from war-torn, impoverished, or otherwise troubled nations today). It also encourages me to get my hands off technology and my mind off my problems or the problems of the world for a time. Watching the Moon doesn’t fix anything, but it does recharge me and gives me a mental break from our modern world.
I encourage you to get out tonight and often in the future to simply gaze at the Moon. Let your mind be filled with dreams or memories of your first kiss under the Moon, the way the Moon seemed to be extra bright or large when you graduated from college, got married, or even buried a cherished love one. Or you could think of Armstrong and Aldrin taking humanity’s first steps 50 years ago today on a place that humans will eventually reside in the future. Or, better yet, empty your mind of everything and simply enjoy a hot summer night with a cool drink, a comfortable chair, friends and loved ones nearby, and a special friend in the sky who is usually there for you each evening if you just take the time to look up.
Postscript: Some people feel bad for Michael Collins, who piloted the command module, Columbia, above the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin worked below. But Collins summed up his feelings on this issue by saying, “I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have.” Many also wondered if Collins was lonely during the 21.5 hours his spacecraft orbited the Moon. (During each orbit around the Moon, Collins spent 48 minutes at a time alone on the far side of the Moon, with no radio contact with Earth or Armstrong and Aldrin.) But Collins didn’t see it that way, recently telling the New York Times, “I had this beautiful little domain. It was all mine. I was the emperor, the captain of it, and it was quite commodious. I had warm coffee, even.” Sometimes peace, silence, and a good cup of coffee are all we need in life.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Main photo copyright Krista Lundgren, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
When I’m not waxing on and on about the Moon, I write books and newsletters about careers for teens and adults who want to change occupations. I also write college-planning books and newsletters, including They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Edition. You can learn more about my newsletters and books by clicking here.