DeFlip Side #1: The Eagle Has Landed

DS01.mp3

Welcome to DeFlip Side everyone.

When Howard invited me to do a monthly segment on Destinies, I was especially happy to hear that my debut would coincide with this Apollo 11 tribute.

Like most Science Fiction fans, I’m a space nut. And I’ve always been fascinated by these first steps into the final frontier. That fascination rose to a fever-pitch a couple of years ago, with all the hype surrounding the 30th anniversary of the moon landing. You couldn’t go five minutes without hearing about it.

Thanks to Long Island’s rich space heritage, and the Grumman Lunar Module that ferried Armstrong and Aldrin to that One Giant Step, most Long Islander’s seemed overcome by a misty-eyed sense of self-righteousness at our stellar contribution to the greatest achievement mankind has ever known. And since I work in local television, 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 were 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 cares about interviewing him?

A pang rose in my chest, a righteous indignation I hadn’t experienced since I was a snotty college freshman. Without even thinking, I demanded to know where she’d gotten her information. And before giving her a chance to answer, I said that all astronauts are heroes, most especially the Mercury Seven, and should be treated with due respect.

I don’t know who was more shocked at this sincere and unbidden reverence, her or me. I don’t much go in for the notion of heroes outside of Fantasy novels, since I think just about anyone who takes responsibility for their actions and lives by their word qualifies as a hero in this day and age. Suddenly, here were these men, sneaking in under my cynical radar and showing me that there actually still are things in this world (or out of it) that we can point to with a collective feeling of pride—things that inspire us.

But this adoration is at the odds with another feeling I have for astronauts, a feeling that plants me squarely in the midst of a paradox. How can I describe this other sentiment? I’d call it blind, irrational, murderous, white-hot hatred. I loathe anyone who has ever donned a space suit and left Earth’s atmosphere.

Oddly enough, these dual realizations came on the same day. The evening after my workplace confrontation, I was flipping through the channels and landed on a show about the Apollo 11 mission, right as Neil Armstrong was making his second most famous speech:

“Houston, this is Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.”

“Houston, this is Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.”

Now, I’ve heard these historic words a million times, but for some reason, this time I couldn’t watch further. I turned the television off, feeling sorry and disgusted. Soon it gave way to loss and jealousy. And it hit me why:

I’m never gonna go to the Moon.

Silly? Sure. Immature? You bet. But understand where I’m coming from. 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 8-year-old. We’re talking age 16 here. 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 who can deal with all these formulas and equations? I’d be a hell of an asset on the Space Shuttle, trying to plot an approach vector for a safe landing. I’m baffled by the mere prospect of balancing my checkbook!

No, 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 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 vision 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.

Commemorating this risk is vital if we ever hope to keep optimism alive and realize our true space-fairing potential. 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, let me 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 the rotating crews of the International Space Station, 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 who put the science in my fiction.

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