[The launch] began with a large patch of bright, yellow-orange flame shooting sideways from under the base of the rocket. It looked like a normal kind of flame and I felt an instant’s shock of anxiety, as if this were a building on fire. In the next instant the flame and the rocket were hidden by such a sweep of dark red fire that the anxiety vanished: this was not part of any normal experience and could not be integrated with anything. The dark red fire parted into two gigantic wings, as if a hydrant were shooting streams of fire outward and up, toward the zenith—and between the two wings, against a pitch-black sky, the rocket rose slowly, so slowly that it seemed to hang still in the air, a pale cylinder with a blinding oval of white light at the bottom, like an upturned candle with its flame directed at the earth. Then I became aware that this was happening in total silence, because I heard the cries of birds winging frantically away from the flames. The rocket was rising faster, slanting a little, its tense white flame leaving a long, thin spiral of bluish smoke behind it. It had risen into the open blue sky, and the dark red fire had turned into enormous billows of brown smoke, when the sound reached us: it was a long, violent crack, not a rolling sound, but specifically a cracking, grinding sound, as if space were breaking apart, but it seemed irrelevant and unimportant, because it was a sound from the past and the rocket was long since speeding safely out of its reach—though it was strange to realize that only a few seconds had passed. I found myself waving to the rocket involuntarily, I heard people applauding and joined them, grasping our common motive; it was impossible to watch passively, one had to express, by some physical action, a feeling that was not triumph, but more: the feeling that that white object’s unobstructed streak of motion was the only thing that mattered in the universe.
What we had seen, in naked essentials — but in reality, not in a work of art — was the concretized abstraction of man’s greatness.
That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt — this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being — an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.
I watched the launch sitting on my father’s lap, on the couch in my parents’ house, on a black and white TV. I can recall it clearly.
It was dangerous. Nixon was prepared for the death of the astronauts.
(My mother is a Jacksonian. She has always said that if she had been in Neil Armstrong’s place, she would have claimed the moon for the USA and been court martialled when she got home.)
The America that launched Apollo was in many ways different and better than the America of today. But “the absolutism of reality” remains as it was, is and ever will be. What matters is what we do in response to it, today, now, and going forward.