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Lunar astronauts never got to heart of moon mission


Some of us tried to go back to the moon last week, but found it as distant as we'd remembered it 25 years ago.

We could recite Armstrong's first words -- "giant leap," yes, yes, but to what, exactly? -- the way school children can chant a slogan without completely comprehending the words, and we recalled exactly where we were the moment we watched those dreamlike TV pictures of Armstrong descending onto the lunar surface.

But, 25 years later, it's still dark up there. We have no feel for the place, and not enough feel for the voyage itself. And worse, there's still this sense of mystery about what goes on inside the human head and heart when they find themselves in a world no one's ever entered before.

We wanted to go along for the ride, vicariously at least, but nobody knew how to take us. We wanted some romance on the journey, and instead heard a technological cool-speak that distanced us from the thing that was supposed to awe us.

"I was so jealous of the astronauts," the journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote some years back. "I asked them, 'Why you, and not me? You are going upstairs with no eyes to look, no ears to listen, no tongue to tell. I would have gone upstairs with all my eyes, all my ears, all my tongues.' If I could, I would step on the moon and plant a tree."

She's writing figuratively, of course. We understand there's no atmosphere for a tree to grow on the surface of the moon but, what we never expected, no one ever created an atmosphere for appreciating the thrill of the journey.

A quarter-century ago, we thought the trip would mean more than it has. The NASA people concur, naturally. Back then, they had visions of the moon as mere outer-space steppingstone. They thought we'd be camped on Mars by now.

But that's NASA missing the point again. NASA thinks the space program's bogged down because there's no available money. Too many problems here on Earth that drain away the space funding: crime and poverty and the rest of the familiar litany.

But those problems were here 25 years ago, too, plus a war that refused to end, plus a racial antagonism that sometimes expressed itself in tremendous amounts of destruction.

Somehow, in spite of it all, the space money was available back then. Somehow, it isn't available today -- because nobody ever satisfactorily explained to America why we should care enough to keep going.

At the very moment the space people should have been winning our ultimate embrace, they were distancing themselves from the popular American psyche. It was a love affair that died because nobody spoke the same language.

Remember those press conferences in the weeks before the Apollo launch? Buzz Aldrin was asked what might be going through his soul in that tense moment when ready to blast off from the moon?

"Various contingencies could develop," Aldrin declared. "A wide variety of trajectory conditions."

We wanted to make some human connection. Aldrin was talking about wandering through space, lost forever, and putting it in the cool, distanced, calculating language of the computer.

"What would happen," Neil Armstrong was asked, "in the extremely unlikely event that the lunar module does not come up off of the lunar surface?"

"That's an unpleasant thing to think about," said Armstrong. "We've chosen not to think about that up to the present time."

We wanted to know about the things we could understand, including simple human fear. Surely, one reporter asked Armstrong, you would have to trust your intuitions at some point, and not merely the readings on spaceship dials?

"[Intuition] has never been a strong suit," Armstrong replied. "Interpret the problem correctly, then attack it."

Later Norman Mailer would write, "The astronauts spoke of possible human disaster as 'contingency.' The heart of astronaut talk, like the heart of all bureaucratic talk, was a jargon which could be easily converted to computer programming. What if you're unable to get off the moon? 'Unpleasant thing to think about.' "

Instead of taking us along on the great adventure, the space people -- whether intentionally or not -- distanced themselves. They were, at heart, moon men and not men from Earth. They were most at home when they were alone in the sky.

So now it's 25 years later, and the people at NASA feel unfulfilled. They never got to put people on Mars, never got to go back to the moon after a few trips. They got all the technical stuff down, but never learned how to sell the great adventure to the people who were paying for it.

And, 25 years later, the moon is still a distant place, and the men who first arrived there are still alien souls who went somewhere that may have been wonderful, only they never learned how to translate it to us.

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