The Distinctive Lives That Made Apollo 11

It’s been nearly 50 years since the first manned Moon landing

Lunar plaque
The plaque left by the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon's surface
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Apollo 11 blasted off into space on July 16, 1969, changing the nature of human exploration forever. Four days later, humanity would land on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin being the first people to walk on the lunar surface. 

Space exploration has changed considerably in the 50 years since then: it’s become a more global phenomenon, and one that’s increasingly privatized. But the Apollo missions still hold the potential to inspire humanity. 

In a 2016 interview with Margaret Lazarus Dean, author of the excellent book Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight, Dean was asked about the lunar plaque that the astronauts left on the Moon’s surface. Her response speaks to the inspirational quality of the mission itself. Dean said, “when I came across this language — created by a government agency! — that made such a ballsy attempt to explain the grand significance of its own work, and did it so well, I was really moved by that.”

“Am I the only one who wants to read this as poetry?” she added.

Her comments point to one of the most compelling things about Apollo 11, and NASA’s work in the 1960s and 1970s in general: there are a tremendous number of facets from which it can be observed and appreciated.

As a commemoration of the looming anniversary of Apollo 11, the New York Times has published an overview of the obituaries of many of the people who contributed to the mission. Looking through it, one gets a sense of the vast range of people involved — ranging from Armstrong to poet Archibald MacLeish, who wrote a poem commemorating the landing. 

The result is a powerful and moving collage of lives, all of which were brought together in the context of this singular mission. It’s a moving look at a group of people who changed the scope of what humanity was capable of accomplishing.

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