In the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey told his beloved Mary he’d lasso the moon for her, but he may have never imagined men would be walking on it years later.
People have counted on the moon and stars as timekeepers since the dawn of time. These astrological points continue to guide us in our quests for exploration, understanding and even love. Frank Sinatra sang about it. Ralph Kramden of the “The Honeymooners” tried — on numerous occasions — to send his wife to it. There was always a fascination in popular culture with the moon, and then we finally got there.
As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by two of the Apollo 11 astronauts as one of the defining and unifying moments in American history, people are recounting their memories of where they were. Countless families gathered around black and white television sets, where they watched astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins — the Columbuses of outer space — embark on their own New Year’s Day.
Ray Whitley, 72, of Salisbury was a 21-year-old sergeant stationed at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee at the time.
“I was on night watch that night in the barracks,” Whitley recalled. “We had a little room with a television and we stayed up all night to make sure no fires break out in the barracks. I watched when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. It was very exciting.”
Up to that point and following Armstrong’s famous “one small step for a man,” Whitley said just about every time there was a mission to space, people would gather around their television sets to watch. After six more moon landings, Whitley said he thought people became apathetic or didn’t have much interest in it anymore, until the creation of the launch of the first space shuttle.
“It was certainly a risk,” Whitley admitted.
Michael Deneen of Boxford, who was 15 at the time of the Apollo 11 mission, also remembers being surrounded by family in his mother’s living room.
“The odd thing about that was maybe you can’t remember emotional reactions as much as you can remember facts,” Deneen, 66, said. “I saw it replay on PBS during the anniversary week and I had a stronger reaction watching it replay as an adult than I did watching it as a teenager.”
Deneen, who is president of the North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club, admitted the Apollo 11 landing was a “pretty daring thing to do,” although it was mainly driven by politics. Looking back 50 years later, Deneen said the moon landing is like “watching someone sail across the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat.”
“The computer systems that they used... today, you have more computer power in your wristwatch,” Deneen said.
While some were in more traditional, family settings, other people, including Bill Sargent, 73, of Ipswich, were in more secluded, exotic locations. Sargent was studying monkeys on a little island in Puerto Rico when he was a senior in college. There were no newspapers, televisions, or other forms of media nearby.
After Sargent damaged his eardrum while scuba diving, he was evacuated by helicopter to San Juan, where he watched the moon landing on TV. Although he said it wasn’t “knock your socks off impressive,” he coveted a newfound appreciation after watching Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” which was released in April 1968.
“We were just on the edge of the seats because we knew what an incredible feat it was after seeing the movie,” Sargent said, a science writer.
While scientists and politicians are toying with the idea of returning to the moon and exploring further to Mars, Deneen said with the advancements in technology over the decades, researchers are able to gather just as much data, if not more, about the universe right here from Earth. Sargent agreed, adding there are many improvements that can be made to Earth’s environment. In addition, he said, the cost to send humans to the moon or Mars would be exponential.
“The thirst for humans to actually go out there and land on other planets, I don’t know if there’s the story behind it that there used to be when we’ve already proven how much science we can get with the robots,” Deneen said. “The intervening years have been filled with space exploration that’s been really successful, without sending people out to space.”
Bob Watts, 65, of Newburyport is an avid photographer who works for Nikon. Admiring the collections of photos that have come out of space exploration and imaging from Earth, Watts said there’s still much to explore here at home.
“The oceans are a huge part of our planet and so much, relatively, is unknown about them,” Watts said. “It’s a whole other world to explore right here on our planet. I’m all for space technology, but we’ve got a lot to learn right here on our own planet.”
The moon continues to tell us stories and teach us things about then and now, forever moving us forward from the greatness of what was and the possibilities of what can be. Whether that includes further exploration at home or away, remains a mystery.
Staff writer Amanda Getchell covers Newburyport and Seabrook. Follow her on Twitter @ajgetch.