Refurnished Thoughts

Discover Vintage America - JULY 2019

Rising from the ashes

by Leigh Elmore

One of my most treasured possessions is a letter I received from my paternal grandfather in February 1962, in which he expressed so much excitement and pride that John Glenn had orbited the Earth in a space capsule and had returned safely. Granddaddy was a man born in 1891, before airplanes had even been invented and now, he was extoling the achievements that technology and imagination had combined to create in 1962.

He was the postmaster of the little town of Alberta, VA on the southern edge of the state. He would send me blocks of stamps to add to my collection. The letter that I mention contained a block of Project Mercury stamps, commemorating John Glenn's flight. Unfortunately, he did not live to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land and walk on the moon. But his enthusiasm for the space program and all things modern was charming. He loved to be amazed by things that were new.

I think back on my grandfather's proud letter, because this month marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing on July 20, 1969. During the seven years between Glenn's first orbital flight and the success of Apollo 11, the United States was riven by forces that almost tore us apart – racial violence in the streets and the Vietnam War were raging during the 1960s. Three assassinations humbled us as a nation. We were a divided country.

Yet, through it all the American space program achieved success after success, first with Project Mercury that showed that men could survive and work in space; then Project Gemini that put teams of astronauts in space together. And finally, Project Apollo, which suffered an unbearable tragedy with the deaths of three astronauts in their capsule at Cape Kennedy in 1967. Despite that huge setback, NASA persisted, learned from its mistakes and went on to send 18 men to the moon and back again between 1969 and 1972.

And it was the success of the space program that helped heal the social wounds besetting the USA at the time. I'll always remember Christmas Eve 1968, when the crew of Apollo 8 broadcast their inspirational message back to the "people of the good Earth," and we got our first image of our planet amidst the blackness of space. It was like a balm. As an American I couldn't help but feel such pride, whatever my political leanings may have been.

Driving back from Chicago to St. Louis on July 20, 1969, I listened on the AM radio the leadup to the moonwalk. I pulled over in Springfield, IL and watched Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon while sitting on the floor of the Holiday Inn lobby with about 50 other people.

Fifty years later those few footprints on the moon are still there undisturbed. We haven't gone back. The Space Shuttle has been retired. The U.S. doesn't even have a manned launch vehicle anymore, we rely on the Russians to get to the International Space Station now.

Half a century ago, the Space Program helped to hold the country together. I think we need some more of that right now and I think my grandfather would agree.

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