How many technicians did it take — wearing white, short-sleeve shirts with skinny ties and vinyl pocket protectors — to put a man on the moon? Whole control rooms full of them, judging by the archival footage and the period-piece movies we saw on TV last week.
And how many cigarettes did it take? Plenty. It seems that everyone smoked like fiends in the Sixties, including the wives of the astronauts.
But whether in NASA black & white or Hollywood color, it was all there last week: the Sixties cars, the Sixties decor, the Sixties hairdos. It was “Mad Men” goes to the moon.
Yes, things were different back then. I think there was one woman — one — in the control room. And the only prominent women in the 12-episode miniseries that HBO repeated last week to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing were the astronauts’ wives, one of whom was played by Sally Field. Other stars in that series (which I had never heard of until last week) included Bryan Cranston, Mark Harmon and Al Franken, all of them looking shockingly young. No wonder; it came out in 1998.
Anyway, growing up during the Space Race was exciting, that much I remember. (Historical note: The Space Race was the part of the Cold War that was waged, between 1957 and 1969, by astronauts and cosmonauts instead of by soldiers and sailors. Don’t even ask about the Missile Gap.)
And the Space Race was never more exciting than it was a half-century ago last week, when two Americans walked on the moon and returned safely to Earth. In one swell foop we had won both the Space Race and the Cold War, although it would be another 22 years before that fact would be confirmed. (Historical note: The Cold War was a military, political and propaganda contest between the West and the Soviet Union that lasted from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet state in 1991. This conflict was fought for the most part through proxies such as Cuba and Vietnam.)
But back to Apollo 11. For President Richard Nixon, it was “the greatest week in history since the beginning of the world, the Creation.” I’ll go along with that, but when he said that “the spirit of Apollo can bring the people of the world together in peace” — during one of the worst years of the war in Vietnam, a year that would see 11,780 Americans killed along with an untold number of Vietnamese, in a war that Mr. Nixon would drag out for another 3½ years — well, that was a bit much. For rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, though, Apollo 11 was the biggest deal since “that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on the land.”
There was a dissent, however; a minority report soon filed by Gil Scott-Heron, the late poet, musician and, I would say, early rap artist:
A rat done bit my sister Nell. / (with Whitey on the moon) / Her face and arms began to swell. / (and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill. / (but Whitey’s on the moon) / Ten years from now I'll be payin’ still. / (while Whitey’s on the moon) …
It was a complicated time.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.