It wasn't Woodstock or the Beatles. It certainly wasn't the Vietnam War. Or bell-bottoms, the 1964 1/2 Mustang, Jimi, Janis, or Twiggy. Nope. The thing that colored everything from education to politics and television (The Jetsons, many a Twilight Zone episode) for my generation was the Space Race.
The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 threw our parents - and by extension, little us - into a tizzy. Not that we didn't have a morbid fascination about the pointy satellite. I remember many a clear night we'd gather outside just to see it pass overhead. But, by gum, it meant that we Americans had better catch up here. I mean, really. Were we going to let the USSR's German scientists beat our German scientists? Hell, no!
The trickle-down effect of Sputnik on those of us sitting in neat rows in a classroom was more emphasis on math and science (I'm blaming the Space Race for "new" math. Still hold a grudge.) . Oh, and suddenly every schoolroom had a television set so that we could watch every satellite-rocket-capsule launch and orbit. Very cool. We were invested in the Space Race at a very young age, friends.
It got more interesting once we passed the monkey-in-spacesuit stage and moved to the astronaut phase. Alan Shepard and John Glenn were (and still are, I reckon) huge heroes to us Baby Boomers. Talk about reality TV! Whoa! The John Glenn flight is still a nail-biter, even though I know it turns out OK.
But, honestly, did anybody take President Kennedy seriously when he challenged us to send a man to the moon and safely return him to earth within the decade of the 1960's? Hm. Well, whether anybody did or not, NASA hopped right on it, and most of us were right there with 'em. We knew the astronauts, the various space programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo), and the types of rockets (Atlas, Saturn).
This week we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Yes. The Coolest Thing That Ever Happened. I never tire of watching coverage of the event. It's still so incredible that human beings ever set foot on that big silver ball in the sky. Who knew what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would find there? (And thanks, Michael Collins, for hanging around in the command module to pick them up, by the way.) Sure there was all kinds of science, but, you know - what if there was something science fiction there that we hadn't counted on? (Fortunately, whew!, not.) And a good chunk our our planet watched the whole Coolest Thing Ever on television together. Bump the coolness factor up a notch.
OK. So here's why I thing the Apollo 11 moon landing ranks as the Coolest Thing That Ever Happened:
1. It was the first time that humans touched the surface of the moon. Really. Not some flying saucer sci-fi movie. Really. And I still have a hard time getting my head around it.
2. We were all invested in it - emotionally, educationally, and - yes - financially. We wanted it to succeed because we'd been taken along for the ride from the beginning; we wanted a happy ending. This is true for Americans, but I suspect lots of folks around the world were invested in the event, too. It brought us together in a good way, not in a bad, calamitous way.
3. It worked! It could have been a disaster, but it wasn't. All those little bolts and screws and all that science and astronaut training worked. Very cool.
4. Moon rocks, baby! Moon rocks!
I feel sorry for those of you too young to remember it. Can't imagine what you'd consider the Coolest Thing That Ever Happened, but I bet whatever it is can't begin to compare. Because for 40 years the second thought that enters my head when I see the moon (right after "Wow!") is that earth-bound humans have hopped around in its dust. And that is just the coolest thing that ever happened.