The second-greatest thing I ever saw was the moon landing

Mark Whittington
Apr 19 · 7 min read

Buzz Aldrin Salutes the American Flag on the Moon.

To understand the second greatest sight I ever saw, I have to discuss one of the worst ones I witnessed. I was home from school sick and, as was often the case during my free time, was parked in front of the television. The TV seemed to be a wondrous device for me, showing me wonders such as the adventures of Bugs Bunny as well as various cop shows and sitcoms that flowed from some magical place to our living room.

I was watching a cartoon, eating a sandwich that my Mom had made for me, when a very serious-looking man suddenly appeared on the screen and started saying very dire things. My Mom sat down beside me, clutched me to her, and exclaimed, “Someone shot President Kennedy!”

The date was November 23, 1963. I was seven years old.

The Kennedy assassination was the first public event that I have a clear memory of. The thing about it that I found sobering was how it affected the adults. They walked around with sad and sometimes angry faces that bespoke their helplessness in the face of an event so awful in its horror as to be overwhelming. If adults were impotent to deal with something, what hope would a little boy have?

I remember one teacher trying to explain why Oswald did it. It was because, she assured us solemnly, that he had not gotten enough love when he was younger. The explanation did not provide much comfort and, as an adult, I know it to be nonsense. Whatever demons drove Lee Harvey Oswald to take JFK’s life did not stem from a lack of love in his life.

The Kennedy assassination was just the start of the parade of horribles that blighted the sixties of my childhood. Vietnam, race riots, student riots, and more assassinations combined to make the child I was wonder if I had been born in a world gone mad. Or it would have except for one thing.

The sixties, as many people remember, also, along with a lot of ugliness, featured the race to the moon between the United States and the Soviet Union. The space race caught my young imagination as nothing has since. Every space mission that I followed avidly was a thing of great beauty and daring that made me believe that the world I had been born in was not altogether an unrelenting horror show. If men (the astronauts were all men back then) could dare to ride rockets up to the high frontier of space, then wonder and bravery were not altogether dead.

Naturally, this obsession of adventures beyond the Earth did not make me popular with my peers. I was socially awkward and, because of an accident that took most of the sight in my left eye, was not very good at sports. Those things alone would have condemned me to the status of outcast in a 1960s school room. However, to hold astronauts rather than athletes or musicians as personal heroes was to mark one as a little too odd to tolerate.

Some of the glamor of the early space program for me was what it represented as a hope for the future. The moon landing would just be the beginning. By the time I was an adult, going to the moon would be a common occurrence. Indeed, my parents indulged my enthusiasm on the theory that it would lead to a lucrative career in the aerospace industry. At one point, as a project for Cub Scouts, I made a model of the lunar module, I remember my Dad telling us that in due course we would be able to tell how much it resembled the real thing.

I saw the moon landing on TV during a family vacation in the summer of 1969. The first stage of the month-long road trip was in Panama City Beach, Florida. My family met with another family with whom we had been friendly when we lived in Orlando and had adjoining motel rooms. We crowded into our room, kids up front, parents in the back, and watched the event on a black and white TV that was ancient even by the standards of the time.

The image coming from the lunar surface was fuzzy and would have been considered ludicrous in the modern age of high definition video. But, as the ghostly white image of Neil Armstrong came down the ladder of the Lunar Module, one of the adults said, “This is just like a science-fiction movie.”

Oh, it was much greater than that. A science-fiction movie would have been shot on a sound stage with special effects. This event was happening on the surface of the moon. Don’t get me started on the moon landing hoax conspiracy theorists. Buzz Aldrin, then in his seventies, did the world a service when he put one of them on the pavement.

I remember every moment of the two or so hours that followed as if they took place yesterday. Watching the video decades after the event does not quite capture the awesomeness of experiencing it in real time. Armstrong and Aldrin explored the moon, raised the flag, unveiled the plaque, talked with President Nixon, set up experiments, and collected rocks and soil samples before the eyes of between 500 million and a billion people on a planet where 3.5 billion lived. I was privileged to have been one of them.

For a brief time, the first moon landing seemed to presage even greater things to come. Indeed, one serious proposal would have had people on Mars by 1986. I remember feeling impatient with the thought that I would be an old man of 30 when that happened.

If this story had a Hollywood ending, it would have climaxed with a scene of me as an adult watching the first people depart from the Kennedy Space Center on a voyage to Mars. Unfortunately, bad politics and the tenure of the times deferred such dreams indefinitely. I recall a sense of deep disappointment, sometimes bordering on anger, at how the Apollo program ended. The idea that anyone would want to end humankind’s adventures in space is something that is still emotionally incomprehensible to me. As for the historical reasons why the heady visions of the sixties space program failed to become reality, I try to explain them in my book, “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?”

Puberty and opportunity diverted my attention in the seventies to girls. After college I spent twenty years as a computer analyst, writing and maintaining business software. The job, while somewhat humdrum, was enough to keep me in reasonable comfort. However, the allure of space did not entirely leave me.

Speaking of one of the worst things I ever saw, I remember coming back to the office from lunch to hear on the radio that the space shuttle Challenger had become a flying funeral pyre for her crew. The scene of the shuttle wrapping itself in flames was played over and over on TV for days, a horror I could not take my eyes off of but so very much wanted to.

My second career has been writing, something I dreamed of doing in college. One of the subjects I write about is space policy, drawing on my early childhood enthusiasm and my college training in history and journalism. I have published articles in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and am a regular contributor to the Hill. I never became an engineer, much less an astronaut, but opinion journalism became a way for me to contribute to the cause of exploring the high frontier.

I have been able to meet, at least via email and over the phone, some of the players in a renewed push for going back to the moon. Bob Richards, a young educator from Canada, founded a company called Moon Express, which proposes a private mission to the lunar surface. I also had a 40-minute phone conversation with a then congressman named Jim Bridenstine, who at the time was locked in a bitter fight to be confirmed as NASA Administrator. Bridenstine, who was not alive to see the first moon landing in life, expressed the fire and desire to make the next moon landing happen. He won his fight to be confirmed as head of NASA and, if my writing in his support had something to do with that victory, I hereby pat myself on the back.

I have good hopes of living to see that next moon landing, surrounded by younger people who will have never before seen a person on another world in real time. I wonder if any of them will feel the awe and wonder I did that time, decades in the past. I sincerely hope so and look forward to sharing memories.

Just as a postscript, the gentle reader must be wondering why the moon landing was just the second greatest thing I ever saw. The answer is simple. The greatest thing I ever saw was the sight of my bride coming up the aisle, an event that for a time I did not imagine would ever occur. The memory makes me smile even decades later. What else could the greatest sight I ever saw be? As the poet Sappho once wrote:

“Some say an army of horsemen,

some of foot soldiers, some of ships,

is the fairest thing on the black earth,

but I say it is what one loves.”

And with due respect to the brave men of Apollo 11 and those many people who put them on the moon, the same can be said about Saturn rockets and the ghostly images of men exploring another world. As glorious as those things were, I have to bow to that ancient Greek poet on where they are on the scale of greatest and second greatest.