The Small Steps after the Giant Leap

There was an episode of the NBC sitcom “30 Rock” this past season in which Jack Donaghy, the fictional Head of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming, watches a home movie of himself as a little boy. When he’s given a model of the Apollo 11 command and lunar modules as a birthday present, he’s so excited that he cries out, “Apollo! Apollo!” and then vomits.

I can relate. It will be 40 years ago tomorrow that Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and poignantly drove home the magnitude of the moment: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I recall vividly the excitement I felt as a little boy. I didn’t vomit, but that’s only because it was late at night and I was home. As a boy I threw up mostly in cars, airplanes, and carnival rides in which the centrifugal force of the ride would hurl the – never mind.

But the moon landing was a big deal for me. It was a big deal for all of us. Certainly it was the most stirring thing I saw on television that month and July 1969 had some exceptional TV if you were a boy my age. Eleven days earlier, on July 9, I had watched my boyhood hero, New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, toss a perfect game for eight and one-third innings against the evil empire out of Chicago: The Cubs. A rookie named Jimmy Qualls broke up the perfect game with a single in the Cubs’ last at bat.

This is how much the world has changed in the last four decades: The Cubs are an icon of fallibility, the baseball team that has gone the longest without winning a World Series, and the idea of space travel leaves us yawning. No little boy in 2009 is so energized by the space shuttle that he is going to scream and then vomit.

And yet the space shuttle is an astonishing accomplishment. Right now the Endeavour is high in the skies above us. This is the 127th space shuttle flight and the 29th to the space station. My sense is if we were told in 1969 what we would be accomplishing in 2009, we would have been impressed. Sure, someone would have insisted that he would only be excited enough to vomit if we had landed on Mars by now. There would be some “Star Trek” wise guy who would want to know why we hadn’t yet frozen Ricardo Montalban – a.k.a., Khan – after the eugenics wars of the 1990s and sent him into exile in space for Kirk and Spock and Kirstie Alley as the inexplicably androgynous Vulcan Saavik to find him.

But by any objective measure the space shuttle is a remarkable achievement. The astronauts and scientists who fly it and walk in space – women and men like mission specialists Dave Wolf and Tim Kopra – know well they are risking their lives in the interest of exploration and scientific advancement.

The issue may be that we have done so much that we take the program for granted. We’re jaded. Our attention turns to the shuttle only when there is a cataclysmic failure. In that regard, it’s a bit like commercial aviation. We notice the accidents, not the miracle that tens of millions of people fly every year.

Moreover, it may be that not only are we more jaded, we’re more cynical. And, yes, more juvenile. We spend more time keeping up with Lindsay Lohan than we do following Julie Payette. Who, you ask, is Julie Payette? Julie is a Montreal resident and mother of two, a pianist, and a mission specialist on the space shuttle orbiting the earth this very moment. This is her second time in space.

My sense is that eventually we will walk on Mars. In the meantime, I will celebrate the feat of Apollo 11 four decades ago and the 127 flights – to date – of our fleet of space shuttles. Some steps may be more giant than others, but when we next have a triumph to rival the lunar landing, it will have taken all of those small footprints to get there.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 19, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.