by Christopher DeFilippis
DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 7
(First Appeared: August, 1999; First Light E-zine, Issue #83)
Human beings are insane.
Canyoning. Cliff diving. Whitewater rafting. Spelunking. Bungee jumping. Flying ourselves to weddings. We are the only species yet discovered to knowingly seek out danger, to purposely put ourselves in harm’s way just for the sake of a cheap thrill. Or so it might seem.
I myself have been skydiving. I’ll one day do it again. And while there are a million words I might use to try and describe the thrill of soaring through the air, cheap ain’t one of them. Thrill seeking is dangerous, foolhardy and imminently worth a try. It’s also responsible for our most far-reaching accomplishments.
Segue into main topic: Apollo 11 turns 30.
The 30th anniversary of the first lunar landing seems to have gotten more attention this past July than it did for its silver anniversary five years ago. Since I work in the media, I’m usually pretty astute at spotting hype and summarily dismissing it. But I have to admit, I had a bona fide case of space fever last month. I was watching every program I stumbled across that in some way chronicled our first steps into the final frontier.
Work only added fuel to the fire. Long Island has a rich space heritage, and since Grumman (a Long Island firm) built the Lunar Module (LM) that ferried Armstrong and Aldrin to that One Giant Step, everyone in this neck of the woods was feeling a misty-eyed sense of self-righteousness at our (literally) stellar contribution to the greatest achievement mankind has ever known. It was my job to produce a piece saluting the men and women of Grumman for this historical coup.
While brainstorming with some colleagues about possible story angles, one of them flippantly suggested that we do a story lambasting Neil Armstrong. She felt that Armstrong was less than gracious for his somewhat cool response to the media. We hold him up as a symbol of history, she reasoned, so the least he can do is reciprocate and step into the spotlight.
I laughed, saying that we should feel lucky to get what we do out of Armstrong. If Alan Shepard was still alive, he’d make no polite pretenses about snubbing us. Aside from being the first American in space, Shepard was a very private man.
Her contemptuous reply: Shepard “chased skirt” anyway and who cared about interviewing him?
A pang rose in my chest, a feeling I hadn’t experienced since I was a snotty college freshman: righteous indignation. Without even thinking, I demanded to know where she’d gotten her information. And before even giving her a chance to really answer, I cut her off, saying that all the astronauts are heroes, most especially the Mercury Seven, and should be treated with the respect that is their due.
Only after I was finished did I realize this reverence was sincere. I don’t much go in for the notion of heroes outside of Fantasy novels, since I think just about anyone who takes personal responsibility for their actions and lives by their word qualifies as a hero in this day and age. Suddenly, here are these men, sneaking in under my cynical radar and showing me that there actually still are things in this world (or out of it, as the case may be) that we can point to with a collective feeling of pride—things that inspire us to look beyond smaller waistlines and larger amounts of disposable income.
But this adoration is at the odds with another feeling I have for all astronauts, a feeling that plants me squarely in the midst of a paradox (and I ain’t talking McCoy and Bashir (ba-DUM-dump!)). How can I describe this other sentiment? Let’s see if I can come up with the right words… Oh, I have it! Blind, irrational, murderous, white-hot hatred and loathing. Fuck those guys. I can’t stand any of them.
Oddly enough, this realization came on the very same day as my first epiphany. The evening after my workplace confrontation, I was flipping through the channels and landed on the HBO miniseries “From Earth to the Moon.” By chance, they were showing the episode that dramatized the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong (played by none other than Tim “Joe Hackett on Wings” Daly) was soon making his second most famous speech: “Houston, this is Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.”
I’ve heard these historic words a million times—the actual transmissions, mind you, not a TV dramatization—but for some reason, this time they caused me a profound sadness. I tried watching further, but I couldn’t. I turned the television off, my sorrow giving way to disgust, and stomped off to the bedroom. My wife looked up from her book in askance. By this time, I was at full-blown pout. I shouldered under the covers and closed my eyes, her all the time asking what was wrong. The answer was simple. It wasn’t sadness I’d felt initially. It was loss.
“I’m never gonna get to go to the Moon!” I replied, insane with jealousy.
Silly? Sure. Immature? You bet. But try and understand where I’m coming from on this one. When people used to ask me what I was going to do with my life, I would answer—quite seriously and without hesitation—that I was going to be an astronaut. And this wasn’t the fantasy of an eight-year-old. We’re talking age 16 or 17. I was intent on doing it. I then moved into the higher mathematics and basic physics courses high school had to offer and washed out in short order. I tried again in college, but could barely pass Astronomy 101. Orders of magnitude. Red shifts. Inertia. I get the thrust of the stuff, but I just can’t wrap my mind around the numbers. I’d be a hell of an asset on the Space Shuttle, trying to plot an approach vector to ensure a safe landing for my crew and myself. I’m baffled by the mere prospect of balancing my checkbook.
No sir, the closest I’ll ever come to outer space is the time I sat on a 16th floor hotel room balcony in Honolulu during my honeymoon and read Moon Shot. And though I’ve accepted that fact, I’ll never learn to like it.
At any rate, I have a feeling that the Mercury Seven would prefer my loathing to my adoration. After all, I don’t think any of them ever gave a good goddamn about being heroes. They were jet jocks—test pilots who liked nothing better than ignoring risks, laughing at odds and snubbing mortality. And if this version is too romantic for you, they were also the only ones the government could find who would willingly strap their asses to untested rockets for a chance to find that ultimate rush—to shoot the thrill and make history in the process.
Which leads me to where I came in. Unnecessary risk is extremely necessary if we ever hope to keep optimism alive and realize our true potential, both individually and collectively. And for those of you out there who feel we’ve made terrific advances in our understanding of the cosmos and our forays into the technological frontier, I feel compelled to remind you how pitifully small our strides have been. We still measure our mechanical prowess in terms horsepower, for Pete’s sake! Somewhere out there, another species is watching us and choking on laughter they can’t contain.
Still, that shouldn’t quell our spirit of celebration. And nor should it diminish the accolades due to the men and women who have redefined our narrow perceptions of reality. From Yuri Gagarin to Eileen Collins, and every engineer, mathematician and rocket scientist in between. I raise my pen to you all for your intelligence, farsightedness and accomplishments. It was you, after all, who put the science in my fiction.