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Moon Launch Was Man’s Shining Hour

“No matter what discomforts and expenses you had to bear to come here,” said a NASA guide to a group of guests at the conclusion of a tour of the Space Center on Cape Kennedy on July 15, 1969, “there will be seven minutes tomorrow morning that will make you feel it was worth it.”

It was.

[The launch] began with a large patch of bright yellow-orange flame shooting sideways from under the base of the rocket. It looked like a normal kind of flame, and I felt an instant’s shock of anxiety, as if this were a building on fire. In the next instant the flame and the rocket were hidden by such a sweep of dark red fire that the anxiety vanished. This was not part of any normal experience and could not be integrated with anything.

The dark red fire parted into two gigantic wings, as if a hydrant were shooting streams of fire outward and up, toward the zenith, and between the two wings, against a pitch-black sky, the rocket rose slowly, so slowly that it seemed to hang still in the air, a pale cylinder with a blinding oval of white light at the bottom, like an upturned candle with its flame directed at the Earth.

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Then I became aware that this was happening in total silence, because I heard the cries of birds winging frantically away from the flames. The rocket was rising faster, slanting a little, its tense white flame leaving a long, thin spiral of bluish smoke behind it. It had risen into the open blue sky, and the dark red fire had turned into enormous billows of brown smoke, when the sound reached us. It was a long, violent crack, not a rolling sound, but specifically a cracking, grinding sound, as if space were breaking apart, but it seemed irrelevant and unimportant, because it was a sound from the past and the rocket was long since speeding safely out of its reach--though it was strange to realize that only a few seconds had passed.

I found myself waving to the rocket involuntarily, I heard people applauding and joined them, grasping our common motive; it was impossible to watch passively, one had to express, by some physical action, a feeling that was not triumph, but more the feeling that that white object’s unobstructed streak of motion was the only thing that mattered in the universe.

What we had seen, in naked essentials--but in reality, not in a work of art--was the concretized abstraction of man’s greatness.

The fundamental significance of Apollo 11’s triumph is not political; it is philosophical; specifically, moral-epistemological.

The meaning of the sight lay in the fact that when those dark red wings of fire flared open, one knew that one was not looking at a normal occurrence but at a cataclysm which, if unleashed by nature, would have wiped man out of existence--and one knew also that this cataclysm was planned, unleashed and controlled by man, that this unimaginable power was ruled by his power and, obediently serving his purpose, was making way for a slender, rising craft.

One knew that this spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature, like some aurora borealis, or of chance, or of luck, that it was unmistakably human--with “human,” for once, meaning grandeur--that a purpose and a long, sustained, disciplined effort had gone to achieve this series of moments, and that man was succeeding, succeeding, succeeding! For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel--not “How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!"--but “How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!”

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt--this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being--an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.

Frustration is the leitmotif in the lives of most men, particularly today--the frustration of inarticulate desires, with no knowledge of the means to achieve them. In the sight and hearing of a crumbling world, Apollo 11 enacted the story of an audacious purpose, its execution, its triumph and the means that achieved it--the story and the demonstration of man’s highest potential.

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