Jul 20 2009 3:30pm

On July 20th, Teresa Nielsen Hayden

I knew the moon landing was going to happen, and then it happened, pretty much as planned. To me, it seemed as stately as a coronation. I was happy about the event, and you couldn’t have dragged me away from the television while it was going on, but it wasn’t an illumination. It was more a vote of confidence: science works like this. People worked like that: Neil Armstrong fluffed his big quote. Poor Mike Collins had to stay in the orbiting Command Module and keep an eye on things. And poor us: there were only a few tv channels back then, so we had to listen to play-by-play commentary aimed at people who didn’t know anything about space flight, or lunar gravity, or what a big deal this was.

Apollo 13 (“Houston, we’ve had a problem”) was the mission that caught my heart. Onboard explosion, loss of electrical power, failure of both oxygen tanks? The network talking heads made soothing noises for the benefit of people who didn’t know anything, but I wasn’t fooled. I knew there was no guarantee that Lovell, Swigert, and Haise would get home alive. (Years later, the Challenger exploded during takeoff. I heard the news from a fellow editor at Chelsea House shortly after it happened. “They don’t know yet whether there are any survivors,” she said. I remember staring at her a few seconds, feeling hollow-eyed and solemn and sad, then saying “There aren’t any.”)

If Apollo 13 scared the bejezus out of me, it also gave me a moment of pure joy, when I heard that the bodged apparatus that let the crew in the Lunar Module use the Command Module’s incompatible lithium hydroxide canisters to scrub CO2 out of the air supply was built using, among other things, the laminated cover of the mission handbook. The principle hit twelve-year-old me like a blinding flash of light: Always look around and see what components are really available.

When the Apollo 13 movie came out a quarter-century later, the scene where they dump out a duplicate collection of everything the astronauts have to work with, and say “Figure out how to mate these components,” brought its own flash of light. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie depict a mindset I knew so intimately well. Finally! Mission commentary that wasn’t geared for ignoramuses!

Boom-di-yada. The world is awesome, and getting more so all the time.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is an American editor of science fiction and fantasy, as well as a fan writer, essayist, blogger, teacher, and moderator.

This article is part of Moon Landing Day: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Fragano Ledgister
1. Fledgist
My favourite ex-wife had a more, ahem, New York response to the Challenger disaster. She was asked by someone at work if she'd heard what had happened to the shuttle and said, "No, I don't come to work that way." Meaning, of course, the 42nd Street Shuttle.
T. Nielsen Hayden
2. T. Nielsen Hayden
Good thing, too.

I don't like my description of that moment. It's not inaccurate, but it doesn't catch the successive nanoseconds of reaction: disbelief that she'd say such a thing, then the realization that she really did think it was possible, then sorrow--for her along with everything else--because it wasn't.
T. Nielsen Hayden
3. Shrt5x4
“Who ever sets the pathway for a nation to do that is going to go down in history far more than Kennedy," is what Buzz Aldrin said about whoever decides to take the US to Mars. It's time to show the younger generation "Science works like THIS."
John Lovekin
4. jsl
But did Armstrong fluff the big quote? The Associated Press and others have carried the story of audio analysis performed in 2006 by London-based Peter Shann Ford that puts the "a" back into "small step for a man." I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
T. Nielsen Hayden
5. Mark D.
He did flub the line. I hadn't heard Mr. Ford's analysis, but having read his account and then re-listened to it several times, there is no way the vocal rhythm admits any sort of "a" into the phrase.

I remember it so vividly: "WHAT did he say? That makes no sense!"

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