Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tortoises and Astronauts

It's an absolutely beautiful evening in Minnesota. Skies are clear, 63 F, very little wind. I've got the windows open to cool the apartment.

Following up on a Twitter post I made yesterday, I can report that the Smithsonian Institution agrees that a Russian tortoise beat the US Apollo 8 astronauts to the Moon: In praise of space monkeys (and tortoises) . I should note, however, that Apollo 8 did a lot more than the tortoise. Apollo 8 orbited the moon, and kept 3 humans alive. Zond 5 did a circumlunar flyby, without orbiting, but did return to Earth.

I suppose this is ancient history for most of you: 41 years ago. Not for me. I lived it via Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman on black and white TV. Here's a very nice blog entry from a person about my age who remembers what it was all like back then: A Secret History of Neil Armstrong .

I remember watching the first moonwalk from my parents' house in suburban San Diego. I was 18, living at home for the summer after my first year in college at the nearby University of California at San Diego. I knew how intrinsically important the moment was; I'd been following the US and Soviet space programs since before I was 6.

Flashback: I can remember lying on the living room floor on the day of the Soviet Sputnik I launch, October 4, 1957, reading the evening newspaper. (Honestly, yes, I was reading the evening paper regularly when I was 6.) I had announced out loud to my parents then, "Well, they beat us to it."

Back to 1969: During the Apollo 11 moonwalk coverage, I stepped out from the living room onto our south-facing front porch, and there was the moon, high in the sky. What a marvelous thing: there, above me, I had a direct line-of-sight to what was being shown on TV. Even today, that's remarkable: watching closeup video from a place you can simultaneously see with your own eyes, 400,000 km away.

So maybe you can understand why I'll walk outside some nights and stand alone under the sky, while everyone else is inside watching TV.