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Opinion

The Whiteboard Jungle: It happened 50 years ago, but the moon landing still tells us about ourselves

Planting the flag
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant a U.S. flag on the moon. The pair spent nearly three hours walking on the moon in 1969, collecting samples, conducting experiments and taking photographs.
(NASA)

While the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11 occurred a few weeks ago, I didn’t want that momentous time to pass without comment.

At around 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 20, 1969, my family watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, all five of us huddled around our 19-inch Emerson black and white TV set. I vividly remember running outside, looking up at the moon and feeling amazed that men were on that orb.

It remains the most significant historical event I have ever witnessed in my life.

Which is why the main TV networks — ABC, CBS, NBC — missed a golden opportunity to jointly re-air the video feed from the moon at the exact same time when it originally happened.

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Only the NASA channel did so.

Imagine how special of an event that could have been, providing a glimpse of what it must have been like to have seen it live in 1969, at a time when Americans no longer watch TV shows at the same time. Only sporting events and breaking news stories provide that bond today.

Nowadays, we are sharing fewer and fewer common experiences that connect us. Too many of us float away on our own individual islands where our cellphones provide whatever entertainment we want, whenever we want.

A remarkable thing about the whole space program is how it galvanized the nation. Oh, sure, life in the late 1960s was not ideal. There were the generation gap, protests against the Vietnam War, fears that the USSR would start a nuclear conflict and political assassinations.

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And yet, when Armstrong descended the steps from the lunar module to place man’s first footprints on the moon, all troubles paused.

In his telephone call to the astronauts, President Richard Nixon earnestly stated that “for one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”

The recent documentary called “Apollo 11,” using only archival footage, offers viewers a chance to relive a period of time when people were proud to be Americans.

Of course, you would have to be 55 years old or older to have witnessed this history firsthand and have that primal exuberance reawakened with anniversary remembrances.

It is hard to believe that half of a century has passed since that time. It would be like commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War I in 1968.

The sad truth about the human condition is that we are all trapped in the era in which we are born: Life on Earth begins the day of our birth. Unless you actually lived through historical milestones, the best you can do to get a feel of what the experience was like is to watch documentaries and read biographies.

Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon on Dec. 14, 1972, eloquently summarized the poetry of what he experienced.

“When you look at this Earth and all its beauty, and all its logic, and all its purpose ... there’s too much purpose to have happened by accident,” he said.

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“It doesn’t make any difference what your God is … somebody up there who put together the most beautiful spectacle a human being can ever conceive, much less have the opportunity to see in real life … that’s our home, that’s our Earth,” he added.

At a time when it seems there are more differences than similarities, when we appear more like strangers than neighbors, let us hope we will soon find common ground in the pursuit of a noble goal that unites our collective identity, healing the ruptures in our culture’s DNA. If it was done before, it can be done again.

Brian Crosby is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District and the author of “Smart Kids, Bad Schools” and “The $100,000 Teacher.” He can be reached at brian-crosby.com.

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