Fifty years ago this week, when men from Earth first landed on the moon, I was somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where it was the middle of the night. So naturally, despite all the drama, I fell asleep.
This puts me in something of a minority, since there were an estimated 500 million people all over the world, thrilled to watch and listen as Neil Armstrong said, “This is one small step for man … one giant leap for mankind.”
I landed in London a few days later, where I couldn’t believe the British newspapers. They were filled with color photographs (still quite rare, in those days, for American papers), and scads of articles applauding the achievement.
As an American, about to spend the next 10 months working for a British paper, I felt enormous pride in the moon landing. But I also felt a disconnect. I wanted to know more about these astronauts, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins.
They should have been the most fascinating men in the world. But they were not. They seemed to be withholding something from us. They seemed to be speaking in a language that avoided normal English. In all the commotion of those days, I missed hearing the beating of the human heart.
At a press conference a few days before Apollo 11 left Earth, a puckish reporter asked Armstrong if he might “keep a piece of the moon for yourself?”
“At this time,” Armstrong replied stiffly, “no plans have been made. … That’s not a prerogative we have available to us.”
As Norman Mailer noted a few weeks later in a piece written for The London Observer, headlined, “The Mind of An Astronaut, ” “The computerese style of response continued. ‘Doing our best’ became ‘obtaining maximum advantage possible.’ ‘Ability to move’ was a ‘mobility study.’ You could not break through computerese.”
Aldrin was no better. As Mailer observed, “Of the tense moment when ready to ignite for ascent from the moon’s surface, Aldrin merely spoke of the ‘various contingencies that can develop,’ and of ‘a wider variety of trajectory conditions.’
“He was talking about not being able to join up, wandering through space, lost forever to life in that short eternity before they expired of hunger and thirst … [But] the heart of all astronaut talk [was] like the heart of all bureaucratic talk, a jargon which could be easily converted to computer programming.”
Even as we appreciated the technicians who helped put these men on the moon, and cheered the courage of the astronauts, we longed to know what the whole experience felt like – so we could measure it against our own courage and fear.
Surely there was some poetry to be mixed into the experience, something to translate the humanity behind the physics and math.
The journalist Oriana Fallaci had Mailer’s reaction. After interviewing another team of astronauts given to the same stiff language, she wrote, “I was so jealous of the astronauts. I asked them, ‘Why you and not me? You are going upstairs with no eyes to look, no ears to listen, no tongue to tell. I would have gone upstairs with all my eyes, all my ears, all my tongues. If I could, I would step on the moon and plant a tree.’”
Plant a tree, write a poem. It’s the same instinct. Tell us, please, what it felt like to be one of us, an earthling, a human, when you went where no other human had ever gone before.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).