One Small Step

On July 20, 1969, a young baseball player in the San Diego Padres farm system got the call he had dreamed of all his life. Padres’ management brought him up to the major league team. He arrived in San Diego barely in time for the team’s game that night. To his amazement, the manager inserted him into the starting line-up.

His first game as a major leaguer would be one he would never forget.

Even the best hitters are successful less than one in three times. And a rookie, batting in the majors for his first time, normally would do even worse. To everyone’s surprise, including the young man himself, he got four hits in his first four times at-bat. As a major leaguer, so far, he was perfect.

The two teams were tied as they entered the bottom of the ninth inning. The rookie was up next. He felt nervous as he picked up his bat and headed toward home plate.  But as he stepped out of the dugout, the crowd began to applaud. The applause grew louder as he reached the batter’s box. Soon, every fan was on his or her feet in a rousing standing ovation. But not just the fans. His teammates were whooping it up in the dugout. He glanced at the opponent’s dugout.  Remarkably they, too, were standing, cheering. Even the umpires clapped. The ovation lasted over five minutes.

The young man moved back toward the on-deck circle, overcome with emotion. With tears running down his cheeks, he nudged the on-deck hitter and said, “Four for four is pretty good, I admit, but I never expected this. These fans, this team, everyone. They really love me!”

The on-deck batter shot him a disgusted look. “You idiot,” he said and then pointed to the scoreboard.

The rookie turned to center field and read for the first time:

Astronaut Neil Armstrong just became the first man to walk on the moon.

I heard that story at a continuing legal education seminar. And since a lawyer related it, and his lips were moving, I don’t know for sure that it is true. But true or not, I love the story because it illustrates how life is. Whenever I think my life is going well, that I’m pretty smart or successful, when I start to believe that it’s all about me, something comes along that puts things into perspective and humbles me. 

One thing that humbles me is the size and complexity of the universe. In comparison, each of us is rather small. We just marked the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. If you were alive at the time, like me, you probably were glued to a TV set somewhere watching the drama unfold. An estimated 600 million persons worldwide watched that broadcast live.

Of course, a lot needed to happen before Armstrong made his historic landing. The film, The Right Stuff[i] is the true story of the selection of the original Mercury astronauts. But even before NASA chose those astronauts, there was Chuck Yeager, the first test pilot to break the sound barrier. At the time, no one knew if it could be done, or what would happen if someone did. Here is a clip from the movie. Note that when the clip shows the photographs rattling on the wall, those are photographs of test pilots who died trying to break the sound barrier before Yeager succeeded.

The race for space began in the 1950s in the middle of the Cold War with Russia. When the Russians successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the earth, the United States feared that Russia would arm similar satellites with weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, that never happened. But the Russians’ success propelled the United States into space. On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech at Rice University that challenged the country to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Here is part of that speech:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade …, not because … [it is] easy, but because … [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

And so began the nation’s search of a group of men who had the right stuff. To be one of the original astronauts, you had to meet all of the following criteria:

  1. Be less than 40 years old;
  2. Be less than 5 feet 11 inches tall (due to the limited size of the space capsule);
  3. Be in excellent physical condition;
  4. Hold at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent;
  5. Be a graduate of test pilot school;
  6. Have a minimum of 1,500 hours total flying time; and
  7. Be a qualified jet pilot.

Most of us have seen videos such as this one from First Man[ii] that shows some of the physical testing astronauts had to undergo:

The space program was expensive. From 1960 to 1973, the United States put 12 men on the moon at the cost of about $24 billion (about $155 billion in today’s dollars). That equaled about 4 percent of the total federal budget. It is less than one-half percent of today’s federal budget. But exploring space has been expensive in terms of human lives as well. Twelve men from both the U.S. and the USSR died during space flights or training missions before 1973. And since then we have had fatalities associated with the Soyuz 11, the Challenger, and Columbia space flights.

The space program was mostly white and male. All of the original astronauts were white males. The first African American in space was Guion Bluford, who orbited the earth during a space shuttle flight on August 30, 1983. Since then, 13 other African Americans have been to space, three of which were women. NASA selected Robert Henry Lawrence for astronaut training in 1967, but Lawrence died in an aircraft accident shortly after that. In 1961, Ed Dwight made it to the second round of an Air Force program from which NASA selected its astronauts, but it never chose Dwight. He made it that far primarily due to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s influence in supporting the notion “that for symbolic purposes in crossing the frontiers of space, this country [sh]ould have qualified members from minority backgrounds.”

Women did not have it much better than African Americans at NASA. Several women were working in computer programing during this period. We now now acknowledge those women as indispensable, as illustrated by this scene from Hidden Figures:[iii]

These women were known as computresses. In those early days, only one woman worked in an operational support role in the Mission Control Center. Frances “Poppy” Northcutt started as a computress straight out of college in 1965. NASA promoted her in just over a year to the team responsible for bringing the Apollo spacecraft back to earth from the moon. “I was sort of the trophy,” she says. “I was blonde, I was young, I was thin, I wore the ladies fashion clothes.” A reporter once asked Northcutt whether it’s true that whenever she clocks in, as “a pretty girl wearing mini skirts,” the “mission grinds to a screeching halt.” Northcutt explains her feelings at the time: “Well, of course, I was being used. My feeling was, you can play this both ways. The mere fact that a lot of women found out for the first time that there was a woman in mission control was a very big deal. I thought it was important that people understand that women can do these jobs — going into science, going into technology, doing something that’s not stereotypical.” In the early 1970’s she learned that her male counterparts were being paid overtime, but she was not. Since then, she has become a powerful voice against gender discrimination.

Although we look at our astronauts as heroes, they were not particularly heroic in every aspect of their lives. Of the 30 astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the marriages of only seven remained intact. “If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home,” said Barbara Cernan, the wife of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. Here is a scene from First Man illustrating the tensions at the homes of our astronauts:

The Apollo program occurred during a time of great unrest in this country. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were both in full swing. Many protested that the money the government spent on the space program would be better used solving problems here on earth. a scene in First Man shows musician Gil Scott Heron rapping his protest poem, “Whitey on the Moon.” I couldn’t find the clip from the movie, but here are the words to his rap:

A rat done bit my sister Nell
With Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And Whitey’s on the moon

I can’t pay no doctor bills
But Whitey’s on the moon
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
While whitey’s on the moon

You know, the man just upped my rent last night
Cause whitey’s on the moon
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
But whitey’s on the moon

I wonder why he’s uppin’ me?
Cause whitey’s on the moon?
Well I was already given him fifty a week
And now whitey’s on the moon

Taxes takin’ my whole damn check
The junkies make me a nervous wreck
The price of food is goin up
And if all that crap wasn’t enough
A rat done bit my sister Nell
With whitey on the moon

Her face and arm began to swell
And whitey’s on the moon

With all that money I made last year
For whitey on the moon
How come I ain’t got no money here?
Hmm, whitey’s on the moon

You know I just about had my fill

Of whitey on the moon

I think I’ll send these doctor bills

Airmail special

(To whitey on the moon)

The day before the launch of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, along with about 500 other protesters, rode up to the launch site in a horse-drawn carriage (symbolizing poverty in this country) to protest misplaced priorities in federal spending. At the time, 20 percent of the population lacked adequate food, shelter, and medical care. Abernathy met with a NASA representative, Thomas O. Paine, who described his meeting as follows:

“I said that the great technological advances of NASA were child’s play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems with which he [Abernathy] and his people were concerned. I said that he should regard the space program, however, as an encouraging demonstration of what the American people could accomplish when they had vision, leadership and adequate resources of competent people and money to overcome obstacles. I said I hoped that he would hitch his wagons to our rocket, using the space program as a spur to the nation to tackle problems boldly in other areas, and using NASA’s space successes as a yardstick by which progress in other areas should be measured. I said that although I could not promise early results, I would certainly do everything in my own personal power to help him in his fight for better conditions for all Americans, and that his request that science and engineering assist in this task was a sound one which, in the long run, would indeed help.”

If we learn anything from our quest to land a man on the moon, I hope it’s that we can accomplish almost anything when it becomes a priority. During a time of war, civil rights unrest and racial and gender discrimination, politicians, scientists, and experts from many areas joined together to solve the problem of landing a person on the moon and bringing them safely home again. And they did it without much thought about a person’s race, religion, culture, or gender. How much better of a world could be ours today if we placed the same amount of time and energy in solving the continuing problems of poverty, racism, and discrimination?

I close with the last sequence of the documentary, In The Shadow of the Moon,[iv] as some of the astronauts who walked on the moon tell of their experiences. (Watch it until the end when the astronauts discuss the conspiracy theory that we faked the lunar landings.)

As we think of the earth upon which we live and the heavens above us, may it humble you as it has humbled me, but also propel us into action to continue to solve the problems we face

[i] The Right Stuff:

  • Production company: The Ladd Company
  • Director: Phillip Kaufman
  • Screenwriter: Phillip Kaufman (based on the book by Tom Wolfe
  • Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, and Ed Harris
  • Release date: February 17, 1984

[ii] First Man:

  • Production companies: Universal Pictures, Dreamworks, and Perfect World Pictures
  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Screenwriter: Josh Singer (based on the book by James R. Hansen
  • Starring: Ryan Gosling Claire Foy, and Jason Clarke
  • Release date: October 12, 2018

[iii] Hidden figures:

  • Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, and Levantine Films
  • Director: Theodore Melfi
  • Screenwriter: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
  • Starring: Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe
  • Release date: January 6, 2017

[iv] In The Shadow of the Moon:

  • Production companies: Discovery Films, FilmFour, and Passion Pictures
  • Director: David Sington
  • Starring: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Stephen Armstrong
  • Release date: November 2, 2007

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