The Summer of '69 was the end of the unforgettable '60s, even if you were very young. The haunting song "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones captures the vibe under the sun: danger, uncertainty, a shot away. This was in the wake of two assassinations and police riots at the Democratic convention, between April and August 1968. Then Richard Nixon was elected president while a losing war raged. 1968 broke hearts all over.
Then something uplifting happened. Walter Cronkite wanted to tell us all about it on the black-and-white CBS Evening News. Cronkite loved the space program and brought America with him.
The absolute wonder of landing on the moon is pressed in memory. On July 20, 1969, in Madison, Wisconsin, my family had a Sunday picnic in my grandparents' backyard, with a raspberry patch and a hammock.
My grandfather Stratton was the chief highway engineer. He disapproved of his daughter's radical politics as a university teacher. I was my long-haired mother's starry-eyed girl, raised on anti-Vietnam War protests. Madison was the movement's epicenter.
When Grandpa led us inside and found his precious camera, he kneeled by the television set as the Eagle landed. Oh, the suspense of the descent while the world watched. Grandpa was thrilled over the moon! I knew this was something big.
As a Madison youth, Stratton knew and looked up to Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who first flew the Atlantic solo.
The moment Grandpa captured was Commander Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. The space pioneer grew up an Ohio boy, born in 1930. All three astronauts on Apollo 11 were born in 1930.
First impressions of the moon: ghostly; powdery dust; no water or wind, just craters; nobody to welcome two seekers from Earth. The Eagle had landed on a flat part. Buzz Aldrin, the second man, radioed Houston and described the moon's "magnificent desolation."
Astronauts were mainly drawn from military test pilots who had nerves of steel. Like my Midwestern grandfather, they were disciplined men who did not waste words. They were chosen by NASA for the "right stuff." They ferried rocks to bring back "home." That's what the astronauts called Earth.
The National Cathedral has a moon rock stained glass window.
NASA, the space agency established in 1958 by President Eisenhower, prepared like mad for this rendezvous.
Give the lion's credit to President Kennedy. Sworn in on a bright, snowy noon in 1961, he declared the torch was passed to a new generation. Outgoing Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in 1890. Kennedy sparkled in the winter sun at 43.
The Thousand Days of his presidency began. In spring, Kennedy addressed Congress with a daring dream and a deadly earnest goal, saying, "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."
Kennedy's urgency went beyond science. Nor was he in it to inspire poets. The American Moonshot was born of war.
The Cold War was at its coldest. The Berlin Wall went up in the summer of '61. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev treated Kennedy like a lightweight.
As a senator, Kennedy unfairly criticized Eisenhower for neglecting space. Eisenhower decided to make NASA a civilian science agency.
Kennedy's psyche tells this story. He was raised by his relentless father to be the second most competitive man on Earth. After his brother Joe Jr. died in military flight in World War II, Jack was elected president, by his father.
Cool Jack became the most competitive man on Earth.
Kennedy became a World War II naval hero when his boat was rammed. He swam to an island and saved a life. He carved an SOS on a coconut.
Jack Kennedy felt life was fleeting and foresaw he would die young.
Let's listen in on the Kennedy White House: "Everything that we do ought to be really tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians."
From Kennedy's storied privilege, travels, Harvard studies and love of the sea we learn you either win or get caught trying, or even dying.
The president never lived to see the lunar landing. The starry-eyed Wisconsin girl shall never forget.
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Photo credit: Free-Photos at Pixabay