As the world marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it’s inevitable that among the remembrances will be the first things that men said on the moon.
The first is by far the more famous: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong, as he emerged from the capsule and stepped out onto the lunar surface.
The second, uttered by Buzz Aldrin, who came out next, is less well-known, but perhaps no less significant. Aldrin gazed about him and exclaimed at the “magnificent desolation.”
Remarkably, on a mission replete with planning, with calculating every conceivable detail and trying to anticipate every possible scenario of malfunction and disaster, these dramatic statements were not scripted.
There were no teleprompters on the moon. As 89-year-old Aldrin recalled in a Reuters interview this week, “Neil thought of that. It wasn’t on the checklist.”
Not that Armstrong hadn’t thought about it beforehand. He told his biographer that “it just sort of evolved during the period that I was doing the procedures of the practice takeoff and the EVA [extravehicular activity] prep, and all the other activities that were on our flight schedule at that time.”
Aldrin’s remark was more spontaneous, describing what he saw before him rather than declaiming for history.
“You couldn’t call that beautiful,” Aldrin said. “It was a shabby bunch of dust … You couldn’t find any place on Earth as barren, lifeless,” he was quoted as saying by Time Magazine two years ago.
Armstrong’s words were bound to be better known, since being first at anything — and it was certainly a day for firsts — offers an edge in getting into the history books. And undeniably it captured the historicity of the moment.
Both were original, both were true.
The moon shot was an achievement in science and technology that had only been dreamt of until then. At the time, many doubted it could be done.
It had repercussions beyond technology as well; it rippled into the realm of politics. It started at a time when the United States appeared to be behind the Soviet Union in “the race for space,” as well as the Cold War contest between freedom and tyranny. The dazzling success of the Apollo 11 mission “made America great again” vis-à-vis its cosmic competitors.
Yet, at the same time, it transcended nationalism. An estimated six hundred million people around the world watched the moon landing. Police departments in cities everywhere reported that crime ground to a virtual stop as even criminals were transfixed by the event. The astronauts were honored upon their return with ticker-tape parades in the United States, but when they traveled abroad afterward they found, somewhat to their surprise, that they were celebrated as heroes there too.
Aldrin’s quote describes the other side of the experience. Magnificent, yes. But — desolate. Astronauts finally got to the moon, and what did they find? Emptiness. Rocks and dust. An airless, unpopulated, lifeless environment.
They knew what to expect, of course. The space suits with oxygen supply weren’t just in case there might not be an atmosphere. Still, there is a secret measure of disappointment at the accuracy of what science had told them they would find. The adventure did contain other surprises (like the uncharted, boulder-strewn landing site they had to fly over during descent), but the degree of desolation wasn’t one of those.
You couldn’t call it beautiful, said Aldrin.
What was beautiful, though, was the sight of planet Earth. Photos of the moon’s surface were gray and drab; the images of Earth as seen from the moon were stunning. A globe of swirling blue and green, hanging in space, rising and setting with celestial grace. Seen from afar for the first time, home was beautiful in a way it had never been before.
Space travel might take us to the moon, Mars and beyond, but the place of life is here. Much might be learned from studying the composition of lunar and Martian rocks and soil, but the kind of knowledge gained will always be different from what can be gleaned from the home planet.
For the ultimate challenge is here on Earth. Here is where human beings can take steps small and large to draw close to Hashem. It is from here that we can better appreciate the moon and Mars and the rest of the vast heavens, not as a geologist’s object of study, but as the work of the Creator.