Opinion

When space drew us together

Apollo 13 astronauts, from left, Fred W. Haise, James A. Lovell and John L. Swigert, leave a helicopter to step aboard carrier Iwo Jima in the Pacific ocean after their successful recovery on Friday, April 17, 1970.
Apollo 13 astronauts, from left, Fred W. Haise, James A. Lovell and John L. Swigert, leave a helicopter to step aboard carrier Iwo Jima in the Pacific ocean after their successful recovery on Friday, April 17, 1970. NASA

The late 1960s stand out in most people’s minds, whether from memory, television, book or film, as a time of searing tumult over the war in Vietnam and over civil rights. We recall years of demonstrations, angry chants, calls to “love it or leave it” or epithets like warmonger and baby-killer.

Demonstrations wracked major cities. The 1968 Democratic National Convention descended into mayhem, in the convention center and on the streets of Chicago. Angry students shut down universities. The culture wars so familiar today were germinating over gender issues, music, language, social norms.

The country seemed as torn apart as it had been since the Civil War, generations at loggerheads with one another and families often bitterly split by the politics of the time.

But there was, lest we forget, something else profound going on. At the beginning of the decade, a youthful President John F. Kennedy had vowed that we would put a man on the moon (yes, it was a given it would be a man) by the decade’s end. It was a bold promise, the sort that galvanized a country when postwar optimism and solidarity still prevailed and our later deep distrust of our government had yet to emerge in the broad population.

The space race was rooted in a Cold War that had the West, led by the United States, facing off with trepidation and bellicosity with the Soviet Union. But the space race also drew people together as a counterpoint to the many other factors driving them apart. In those days of three networks and a handful of truly national news outlets, milestones in space captured near-universal attention and pride.

The spirit and the memory of that period lives on in only a handful today, aging exemplars of “the right stuff” who led our voyages into space. One of those was in Chapel Hill Thursday evening, rekindling the black-and-white mental images of those days and not incidentally reminding us of the unique role one of our area treasures, the Morehead Planetarium, played in early space flight.

James Lovell, who twice circled the moon in Apollo capsules (but never set foot on it) was in Chapel Hill to talk about those days and the training in celestial navigation that all early astronauts received at the planetarium. Recalling the view of Earth from space, Lovell said he thought, “Really, God has given us a stage in which to perform, and how that play turns out is really up to us.”

That spirit of those times was affirming to recall this week.

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