Today, we ask what really happened on July 20th,
1969. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
"Pale moon, why is
everything at sixes and at sevens?" sings the
distraught captain of the Good Ship
Pinafore as his life goes to pieces.
The pale moon has held our hearts since we were
only beasts. Why indeed, now that we have stepped
upon its face, is everything at sixes and at
Getting there should've been the great glory of our
species 25 years ago. But the moon had been too
large in our heads, and, for just a moment, it
became too small in our eyes. When Neil Armstrong's
foot hit the dust, we stopped seeing with our
hearts and turned our backs on the greatest human
Science fiction had built the moment up. Arthur C.
Clarke rightly showed us the great gray monolith of
human transformation there on the moon's seemingly
barren soil. Poetry had prepared us for so much
more. "That orbed maiden, with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon," wrote Shelley. With
that sort of thing burning in our minds,
Armstrong's hop suddenly did look like one very
small step for a man.
And so, that July night, so long ago, we abruptly
aborted the adventure. The very next year we began
cutting our space program to bits. We did the run
of Apollo flights; then we never went back. Of
course that was a dreadful error.
We are an expanding species, hungry for new worlds
and new adventure. The moon may seem layered with
dead dust, but the mind can see what the eye cannot
see in that dust. There is an amazing, low-gravity,
windless, perfectly clean world where we can work
scientific and manufacturing miracles.
More than that, it's the perfect staging point. It
is the space station from which we can step off
into the reaches of profoundly deep space. It was
all there, staring us in the face on that July
night a quarter century ago. And all we could see
was the drab flickering screen of our
black-and-white TVs. I think Thoreau said it best
when he wrote:
The youth gets together his materials to build a
bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or
temple, on the earth, and, at length, the
middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with
And we, God help us, turned from youth
to middle age on that strange and momentous summer
The time's come to let go of 1969 and begin again.
It's time to validate what we did 25 years ago, not
by blowing it into a success that it wasn't, but by
building a new space program on our age-old,
still-valid, dream of going to the stars.
"Yon rising moon ... looks for us again," says Omar
Khayyam. She surely does. I wonder how long we'll
make her wait.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Too much is being written about this 25th
anniversary. However, I highly recommend an
insightful book review by Alex Roland, How we Won the
Moon, New York Times Book Review, July
17, 1994, pp. 1 and 25.
The "Pale moon" line is from William Gilbert's
libretto of the operetta H.M.S.
The "orbed maiden" line is from Percy Shelley's
poem The Cloud.
The Thoreau quote is from his Journal entry of July
14, 1852 -- 117 years and 2 days before Apollo 11
blasted off on its epic trip to the moon.
The "Yon rising moon" line is from Edward
Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of
Omar Khayyam. New York: Random House, 1947.
In Fitzgerald's first edition, this appears as
Stanza 74 in the words,
Ah, Moon of my Delight who know'st no wane
The Moon of Heav'n is rising once again:
How oft hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me -- in vain!
It is in Fitzgerald's third and later editions that
this becomes Stanza 100, rewritten as:
Yon rising Moon that looks for us again --
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden -- and for one in