Touching The Moon

Where were you when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon? It’s July 21st, the 50th anniversary of a momentous event in human history. One that, for four days, for an hour, for a moment, brought humankind together.


I was in my last year at boarding school. Clustered around a small black and white television were friends who had survived the previous four years. Boarding school had been quite a journey for young girls from the country who knew there was a greater world out there, and were preparing to take our own giant leaps outwards. We were young, but no longer naïve. We’d experienced too much- but that’s another story.


I sat next to my closest friend, Bernie, a brilliant artist. While she sketched, I sat totally transfixed by what was happening. She was fascinated by the light, the images and the shapes. My brain was full of questions – how had they achieved that, who had made it happen, what training did the astronauts have to go through. How were they selected? Could I become an astronaut? Bernie died of a brain tumour only three years later. I’m the only one left of all the people who were in that room. I wish I still had a drawing.


Decades later, 1998 to be precise, I found myself working in Florida running training programs and policy development workshops to try to change the direction of education in the state when one, very senior woman offered a trip to Cape Canaveral. She knew a person by the name of Sally Ride, who just happened to be the first American woman to fly in space. Be still my heart!


Driving into the Cape was a surreal experience. Prehistoric alligators and armadillos ambled along the roadside and the mangrove swamp, with the massive, literally space-age buildings that were the Kennedy Space Centre and hangars for the space shuttle, which was at the height of its time.


We pulled up. Jenny shepherded us from the car, through security, which by today’s standards was pretty rudimentary, and into a large room that looked much like a classroom. It was. It was where the ‘trainee astronauts’ trained. Next door was a room full of ageing computers. The actual control room where a group of people, average age apparently only twenty-six, including one woman, JoAnn Morgan worked together to get Armstrong to be able to take that giant step. To realise the entire firepower of the computers in that room was now contained in my new Apple Mac was a salutary experience.


A dark-haired woman walked in. She looked well groomed, wearing a red pencil skirt suit, and greeting my benefactor with a hug. ‘Sally, I’d like you to meet…’ and words failed me.


‘Come over here and look’ she said. We did. Outside the window a contraption that looked like a large egg with a trapdoor in the top was shooting people out. They were landing, sometimes on the ground, sometimes on softer surfaces. “They’re bouncing baby astronauts today’ she said. A large part of training is the physical capability to withstand massive stress – hence the ‘bouncing.’


Further across what looked like a huge runway, doors were opening on what seemed to be a twenty storey building. They took several minutes. It was a space shuttle hangar. Audible gasps all round as the shuttle was finally there in all it’s white gleaming glory ready for transport by the crawler, the entire three mile journey to launch pad 39. Because of its size it took hours, from memory around nine or ten, to reach the launch pad.


As we chatted about her mission and I tried constantly to stop my jaw from hitting the floor, people walked in and out, came to shake her hand and be introduced to us, for the first time in my life I felt intimidated by an experience. It felt, not that I was in the presence of greatness, but as if I’d touched the universe, someone connected to something so much bigger than any of us. For the first time James Lovelock’s Gaia theory felt so much more.


As we continued to chat, to watch the slow crawl of the shuttle, and to watch one poor bloke land the wrong way out of the ‘egg’ and break his arm, the door opened and I heard the words ‘Good morning Mr Armstrong, how wonderful to see you sir.’


Oh…my…god. What do you do in a situation like that. He came straight over, very upright with a somewhat stiff gait, greeted Sally, and nodded as we were introduced. Sally seemed a little intimidated. As they chatted about the technicalities of the upcoming shuttle mission, I tried hard to focus on every word they exchanged. I don’t remember a word, but I do remember feeling awed for the first time. It was like coming face to face with a celestial body. He didn’t shake our hands when introduced, but a nod of recognition and a comment about my Aussie accent. The room was suddenly full of people, all wanting to speak to him or just be in his presence. I figured I probably had time to try to get one question to him. ‘Mr Armstrong, I’m just wondering what you said next after the ‘one step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. In that moment a smalltown girl from Australia met the smalltown bloke from Ohio who had been to the moon and back. He looked quizzically for a moment as I tried to keep a straight face – and smiled.