There’s a moment in the movie “First Man” — about Neil Armstrong — that we keep thinking of as the jubilee of Apollo 11 is being celebrated throughout the Milky Way. It’s the confrontation over a crisis in the flight of Gemini 8, when Armstrong’s wife rejects NASA’s reassurance that it has everything under control. “No you don’t ....” she retorts. “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything under control.”
God they were glorious. In marking that point we don’t mean to slight any of the women and girls dreaming of the heavens. America is now learning of the role that was played by women in working out the mathematics of space flight. And it’s hard to imagine settling any of the planets without both men and women. We do mean to mark the heroical recklessness of Apollo. It’s hard to imagine that mature men would have made it to the moon.
This is something to remember as our political leaders maneuver for Mars. As we watch the various fabulous footage — some documentary, some evoked by Hollywood — of Apollo 11, we are often struck at the ricketiness of the enterprise. The vehicles look like rattletraps, or toys, compared to what is being flown today. And for the life of us we can’t help thinking that everyone involved looks like they’re barely out of college or the service.
Not that we met any of them — although once, when we were covering Vietnam for the GI daily Pacific Stars and Stripes, we came within a mud-puddle of meeting Michael Collins, who’d circled the moon in the Apollo 11 command module while Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin descended to the lunar surface. Afterward, Collins became an assistant state secretary and, in 1970, accompanied Secretary William Rogers on a visit to Vietnam.
Rogers had made a point of visiting a village in the Mekong Delta where America had an aid project. He brought along Collins. The press followed in a battered DC3. Foreign correspondent Henry Bradsher includes in his anthology of stories from the Cold War a description of the visit that is similar to our own recollection, particularly the moment when, in a muddy square, Rogers introduced Collins to a gathering of grizzled Delta farmers.
Rogers boasted about American technology and then introduced the assistant secretary by telling the villagers that Collins had just come from the — and here he gestured into the vast blue sky above — moon. Collins himself got up (on a large tree stump, as we recall it) and started trying to elaborate. Even with a secretary-of-state-grade translator, it was easy to see a certain weary skepticism cross the faces of these farmers.
Bradsher later wrote of how, with the help of a Vietnamese employee of the aid project, he began “on the side of the crowd” to ask people “what they thought of the project and of Collins having been to the moon.” Bradsher summed up the reaction of the farmers this way: “The project was fine. But about that man having been to the moon, well, we may be just ignorant farmers, but we’re smart enough not to be fooled.”
While Bradsher was doing that, we were casing the crowd. Some of the farmers were chewing betel and too old to stand up straight. We had the same impression Bradsher had of their skepticism. What fascinated us was a knot of children peering out among the elders as Collins gestured to the heavens. Their eyes were as wide as flying saucers, and we had the impression that anything seemed possible to them — a bunch of boys.