For GeekDads of a certain age, the 60s and early 70s hold a special place in our hearts. These were the years of man’s first leap into space — the daredevil Right Stuff of the Mercury Seven; the spacewalks and docking exploits of Gemini; and, most vividly, the flights to the moon of the Apollo Program.
Indeed, there is perhaps no greater universal touchstone in the GeekDad canon than that moment when Neil Armstrong stepped upon the moon’s surface. The Space Program was the ship that launched a thousand — a hundred thousand — geeks. Indeed, I would argue that these years were the crucible of GeekDad-dom. Whether you be engineer or poet, whether you were a builder of robots or a reader of Asimov, that moment tied us together and made us one (and not in an uncomfortable Borg sort of way). We may quibble about Kirk v. Picard, but on this point there is no argument: The moment was real, and it was ours – the triumph of our (or of any) age. Science fiction had become fact: Our footprints were on the moon, and all of space lay ahead of us. We had only to choose.
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
President John F Kennedy at Rice University September 12, 1962
It was a Wednesday morning – July 16, 1969 – when Apollo 11 left pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center and climbed into the sky.
I was nine years old that summer, and a more committed Space Geek than you could imagine (although, if you’re a GeekDad, you probably could). I watched every launch, every splashdown. The only times I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime was to watch a night launch. (Or Star Trek. Fortunately, my Dad was almost as much into the whole space thing as I was. Who else would take an eight-year-old to see 2001: A Space Odyssey the week it opened?)
I read everything I could lay my hands on (somewhere in my garage there is still a battered copy of Wernher von Braun’s Space Frontier). Alas that there were no Intertubes then to feed my obsession…. My room was populated with Revell plastic spacecraft models, posters and magazine pages of rockets and astronauts. Brief digression: Christmas of 1969 I received the giant 1:96 scale Revell Apollo model (and a Schwinn Stingray bike with a purple banana seat). Best. Christmas. Ever. And when eBay finally rolled around the first thing I went after was another copy of that Apollo set.
Ironically enough, given my obsession, I did not see the Apollo 11 launch on television. (Gasp!) We were on vacation in Yosemite, in a cabin… so I listened to the launch on our portable radio. And my imagination did the rest. (We were home for the landing on the moon, though — that was non-negotiable.)
Of course, I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. Alas, that was not to be – in adulthood, I was too tall, and my eyesight sucks. But in my nine-year-old mind (indeed, in my forty-nine-year old mind) I was (and am) indeed an astronaut – and my appetite for discovery and the triumph of imagination has never diminished. It’s something that as a GeekDad I strive to pass along to my sons.
Now, as this fortieth anniversary is upon us, I find myself thinking frequently – and fondly – of that summer (and indeed of all the Rocket Years that led to that summer). I was telling my boys the other night about that summer, and wishing that I could share it with them. And actually, I came across a way to actually do that:
It’s an interactive, day-by-day recreation of the entire Apollo 11 mission (a project of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum). Fantastic and highly recommended. In our house, three boys will follow it – my two sons, as well as my inner nine-year-old, and we will marvel. And hopefully, I can kindle in my children some of the wonder and excitement that I felt as we reached out for the first time beyond the boundaries of our own small blue planet. I want them to feel as I did: at that moment, anything was possible… anything at all. We had only to choose to go.
I’ll be back tomorrow after the launch with some more observations and some more recommendations for reliving the Rocket Summer of 1969.