On July 20, 1969, when American astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon, he was fulfilling a mission in which Louisiana had played a memorable role.
From 1961 to 1972, the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East was used to construct the Saturn rockets that made the Apollo lunar missions possible. Max Faget, an LSU graduate in mechanical engineering, helped design the Apollo spacecraft.
The 50th anniversary of that moon landing is an occasion to remember what America accomplished that day, which was a victory for all humanity. Such anniversaries are important because they remind us of things we’d otherwise forget. The sad truth is that despite the euphoria that accompanied the lunar landing a half century ago, we really don’t take much notice of the moon these days.
It’s a reality that Douglas Brinkley, a former New Orleans resident and Tulane professor, knows well. Brinkley, whose new book, “American Moonshot,” chronicles the early space program, asked Armstrong in 2001 why Americans aren’t as focused on space as they used to be.
“Oh, I think it’s predominantly the responsibility of the human character,” Armstrong told Brinkley. “We don’t have a very long attention span, and needs and pressures vary from day to day, and we have a difficult time remembering a few months ago, or we have a difficult time looking very far into the future. We’re very ‘now’ oriented. I’m not surprised by that.”
What Armstrong, who died in 2012, said all those years ago about our capacity for distraction is even truer today. The technology that helped us get to the moon helped flower a communications revolution. Those smart phones in our pockets, modern miracles though they are, pull us mentally in a hundred directions.
With that in mind, maybe it’s best to honor today’s anniversary by remembering something that Armstrong and his fellow astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, did once they arrived on the Sea of Tranquility. In the midst of myriad responsibilities, with millions back on Earth watching, they improvised a jig.
When the astronauts “went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety,” E.B. White wrote in The New Yorker.
The impulse to dance in those first moments on another world must have resonated in Louisiana, where the ideal of joie de vivre has long been part of our culture.
But even here, life moves so quickly these days that it’s easy to overlook the power of the playful pause. This weekend, mark the Apollo 11 anniversary by glancing upward, where the moon still abides in the evening sky. A celebratory toast, and maybe even a two-step, wouldn’t be a bad nod toward Tranquility Base from Louisiana.