Tom Clyde: We put man on the moon 50 years ago, but can’t keep the lights on today
Today is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. It seems like it was, well, all of 50 years ago. I am one of a very small group of Americans who didn’t watch it on TV.
We didn’t have TV at the ranch then, and only have it now because of satellite television — which exists in large part because of that trip to the moon. I was working with an uncle that summer on a kind of disastrous remodel of the bathroom of their house, which was next door to ours. It was one of the original homesteader cabins, and the bathroom had been added on in the 1940’s.
The addition was falling apart, and we were trying to repair it. It was one of those things that started out as a fairly simple repair, but each piece that was taken off revealed more problems, and a weeklong project turned into a summer.
Without TV, we listened to the moon landing on the radio in his truck. Since the event was almost entirely visual, there were lots of long, static-filled silences. A breathless nation watched Neil Armstrong step out of the lunar landing module and followed his every move. On the radio, it was kind of a bust. Of course. I later saw the reruns on TV, but it wasn’t the same.
It was an amazing feat, pulled off with what looks like technology pulled out of the depths of the barn. The landing module was a collection of scrap metal and aluminum foil, old lawn mower parts and so on. They engineered it with slide rules. I suspect there is more computing power in my cell phone than there was on board the whole mission from launch to splashdown. As an aside, the movie “Hidden Figures” was a fascinating look at how computer power worked then — rooms full of math geniuses doing thousands of calculations by hand. Now, we just ask Siri.
I never fully embraced the idea that going to the Moon was all that important. It always felt like a Cold War stunt. There were no problems here on Earth that were solved by walking on the moon. An enormous amount of raw science came from the effort, with byproducts like the pocket calculators that replaced slide rules, and computers, communications, and satellites. All of that was accelerated by the moon project, but it’s not like we would still be communicating by telegram if it hadn’t happened. Eventually, the technology to send millions of robocalls to cell phones would have been developed independently.
But there’s no getting around it, landing a man on the moon was absolutely amazing, even if the usefulness of it wasn’t completely obvious. It’s a bit like Evel Knievel jumping over the Snake River on his motorcycle. Nobody really knows why he’s doing it, but we’d all pay good money to watch.
They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t keep the lights on in New York City. While I didn’t watch the moon landing, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I did watch the TV coverage of the power outage that affected part of New York City last week. A tropical storm was flooding New Orleans, and hundreds of thousands of people there were without power or the ability to move around on flooded streets. But that didn’t matter. Broadway shows were cancelled in New York! Oh, the humanity.
Somehow a 5-hour power outage in New York was all that mattered. The outage was a garden-variety equipment failure, not some North Korean hack of the grid. The coverage suggested it was the end of the world. In my neighborhood, a power outage is normal. Sometimes I can go a whole week without a power interruption, but that’s not the way to bet. We just deal with it. CNN ignores it. Really, New York, nobody cares if your power is out. The breathless coverage became a hilarious parody of TV news.
Everybody agrees the power outage was real. There are doubts about the moon landing. There is a theory that it was faked, that it was filmed somewhere in Arizona. The idea is that the technology was just too primitive to have pulled it off, so NASA faked the whole thing. The goal was to show the Soviet Union that our science was better. Sure, they were first with Sputnik, but we landed a man on the Moon, or the Mojave Desert, whichever you choose to believe. Take that, you filthy commies.
Fifty years ago, we had leadership that said we would go to the Moon (or the Mojave). The national commitment to it was huge. Today, a similar commitment might find practical solutions to climate change. Of course, if our current leadership had been in power 50 years ago, they would have denied that the Moon even exists.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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