The world has been marking the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. I've also been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 astronauts getting safely back to Earth. After all, it's one thing to get all the way up there; it's another to return in one piece.
When they splashed down in the Pacific on July 24, 1969, the three men—Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins—were helicoptered from their capsule to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, and immediately packed into a modified Airstream trailer placed on the ship's deck. Although eventually transferred to Houston, they sat in that trailer and were quarantined for weeks, just to make sure they hadn't brought back any space cooties.
They didn't. Or did they? A recent headline in The Onion blared, "Real Buzz Aldrin Spends 50th Straight Year On Moon Trying To Signal Earth To Warn Of Imposter."
Growing up, I was a total space geek. I read young adult novels about NASA ("Mike Mars and the Mystery Satellite"), built rocket models, watched the first manned space shots on a big black and white TV set rolled onto the stage of our elementary school auditorium and tracked each orbit of the missions as if I was keeping box scores at a Yankees game.
At the time, the astronauts indeed seemed like just the right stuff we needed, the perfect backup team to our young, sporty and charismatic President Kennedy, who'd taken office after eight grey years of Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the years went by, I enthusiastically followed the space program's progress, and when we landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface, like so many millions of others, I sat with my family enrapt, watching every single second.
By the time of the Apollo 14 moonshot in 1971, the public already was becoming inured to the mysteries of the moon. I was in a Washington drugstore where a monitor over the cash register showed astronauts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell on the lunar surface. The clerk expressed his boredom. At least this time it's in color, I offered. "Big deal," he replied. "So's 'Laugh-In.'"
The original group of astronauts—the Mercury 7, we called them—had their seemingly perfect family lives brought to us photographically just about every week via an exclusive contract with Life magazine. But now we know that like JFK, they were not perfect. As was recently examined in the excellent, three part "Chasing the Moon" series for public television's American Experience, despite all the glory there was racism and misogyny, booze and drugs, even suicide. Despite their climbs ever higher into the heavens, some of them were no angels.
Through tragedies like the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 and the two shuttle disasters in 1986 and 2003 we learned how mortal they and their families could be. And now Neil Armstrong, it turns out, died after an apparently botched heart bypass procedure in 2012 at Mercy Health—Fairfield Hospital in Cincinnati for which his family received an out-of-court settlement of $6 million. This came after threats from an attorney—married to one of his sons—that the Armstrong boys would blow the whistle on the hospital at an official NASA ceremony marking the moon flight if they didn't pay up. In a probate court filing another attorney involved wrote, "No institution wants to be remotely associated with the death of one of America's greatest heroes."
Armstrong's widow, by the way—his second wife and executor of his estate—signed off on the deal but refused to have anything to do with the money—"I wasn't part of it," she said. "I want that for the record."
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported on July 27 that Armstrong's sons have been auctioning off their father's memorabilia for millions. Items range from a gold medal he carried on the Apollo 11 mission and an old flight suit to a childhood teddy bear and subscription magazines. According to the Times, "Some relatives, friends and archivists find the sales unseemly, citing the astronaut's aversion to cashing in on his celebrity and flying career and the loss of historical objects to the public."
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While alive, biographer James R. Hansen said, Armstrong himself never auctioned any of the artifacts of his career and stopped giving autographs when he realized they were being sold. As per the Times, "His personal lawyer, Ross Wales, said his client resisted the idolatry focused on his signature and possessions in part because he considered himself only the frontman for a huge NASA enterprise." At one point the astronaut went after a barber who had sold clippings of his hair for $3000.
Whether you approve or not, the sons seem within their rights to sell off dad's legacy. And they claim that they're putting some of the proceeds into funding Vantage Earth, an environmental non-profit "to preserve and protect the earth from the damage done to it by its own population—a concern raised by Neil upon looking back at the earth from the moon."
If true, that would be a good thing. In fact, several of the astronauts became environmental advocates. The only one of them I ever met—John Glenn, the first American in orbit and later the oldest to fly aboard the space shuttle—made a lunchtime speech I attended during one of the Democratic National Conventions. I especially remember his description of our planet from space, how minute and thin the stratosphere that protects us from the sun's ultraviolent radiation seemed, and the dangers of our climate being fatally altered by fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.
The International Space Station still flies over us in low-Earth orbit but Apollo ended in 1972 and the space shuttle program ceased to be eight years ago. Nonetheless, thanks to NASA, robot probes continue to fly deeper into the cosmos and weather satellites keep watch on us from above. What we've learned should make us afraid.
Global analysis by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies indicates that last month was the warmest June on record and July might be the hottest on record, too—which would mean the hottest of any month ever measured.
Tom Yulsman, director of Colorado University's Center for Environmental Journalism writes at the Discover magazine website, "One thing is for certain: the long-term rise in global temperatures resulting from our emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases continues, along with resulting climatic impacts like more extreme rainfall, catastrophic flooding, melting ice sheets, and rising sea levels."
This summer, we've experienced blistering deadly heat across Europe and North America. Here in New York City, we've been enduring withering temperatures and flash floods following those thunderstorms that however briefly break the heat. Jack Holmes at Esquire noted, "We've already seen the great Midwestern floods of 2019, and towns that lack New York's size and resources will face these conditions, too. The heat will break, but only at the cost of a flood. And then we'll do the whole thing again, over and over, and ask ourselves how we did not stand on the rooftops and scream for a stop to all this before it spiraled beyond our control."
The Trump White House (aka Space Force HQ), NASA and private interests are pushing for a return to the moon by 2024, this time with a project named Artemis—the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology. Both men and women will be at the helm, they say. For various reasons it's viewed as a logical way station along the path to a landing on Mars.
The young space geek that still dwells within me roots for their success. The realist in me says that for now at least the money could be better used elsewhere, to combat climate change and work on infrastructure that helps protect against the extremes of global warming. That would mean a safer, saner place for any astronaut to come home to, and yes, a small step for man and a giant leap for humankind.