A Personal Reminiscence
The United States' Apollo 11 made history on July 20, 1969 when it became the first manned mission to land on the Moon. At that time, I was serving as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. My job was in Community Development, building small dams and bridges in remote villages in Northeast Thailand. My fellow volunteers were stationed in various locations and rarely saw another American, but we were blessed to experience the beautiful Thai village culture before electricity brought the irrevocable changes resulting from the impact of television and other modern amenities. As a result, none of us saw any of the moon landings outside of grainy newspaper photos, although we were very excited about it and had great pride in our nationʼs accomplishment.
It was the policy of the Peace Corps to summon volunteers to Bangkok for regular medical checkups. Some time after the moon landing, several members of my group and I were called for a checkup. While we were in Bangkok, we were invited as token representative Peace Corps volunteers to attend an event hosted by the US Consulate welcoming the Apollo astronauts who were on an around-the-world publicity tour. My colleagues and I were happy to attend, as the prospect of fancy Western cooking would be a welcome change from our meager village diets.
When we arrived at the venue, we were amazed at the number of dignitaries and high-ranking officials from both the US and Thailand. Feeling totally outclassed by the upper echelons of society present and looking relatively ratty in our less-than-elegant attire and shaggy hair, my Peace Corps friends and I stuck to the periphery and focused our attention on the food. After a short while, an athletic man with very short hair showed up at our table carrying a tray and said, “May I sit with you guys?” None of us recognized him, but we all welcomed him to join us. He sat quietly as our conversation continued. Finally one of the guys at the table guessed who he was and said, “How was the moon anyway?” That broke the ice. We all enjoyed one of the most memorable moments of our lives listening in awe as Neil Armstrong quietly talked about his experiences as an astronaut. He later observed that it would have been great to have brought a writer or an artist who could effectively communicate the profound impact the experience had on him in a way that the people of our planet could share.
Neil Armstrongʼs comments made me realize that humanityʼs forays into space are not just technical achievements, but are perceptual/cognitive achievements as well. Space exploration has allowed us as a species to see our home planet and ourselves in ways that were never before possible. The perspective from space reveals a precious jewel of a planet floating in the void… a place where unique circumstances allow it to support life and evolve self-aware species.
From space, no borders can be seen. Those figments of human imagination have meandered over the millennia as various cultures rose and fell. From space, it must be obvious that we are but one of the myriad life forms that inhabit the planet like mold on a piece of bread. This is at the heart of what, years later, Frank White termed the Overview Effect.
As the event was winding up, a receiving line formed near the entrance so key dignitaries and the astronauts could say goodbye to departing guests. As my Peace Corps friends and I were leaving, we stopped to chat with the Peace Corps Director. At that moment, another Peace Corps volunteer who was chronically late for everything (now a high ranking diplomat in the Foreign Service) arrived with a scruffy looking local man who clearly was not dressed for the occasion.
The man walked up to Neil Armstrong, studied him for a moment to confirm his identity, and then raised his right thumb enthusiastically and said, “You… you… walk on moon number one!” The Director of the Peace Corps then asked the volunteer who his friend was. “I donʼt really know him,” was the answer. “He drove the cab I came in. When I told him I was going to meet the astronauts, he didnʼt believe me, so I brought him in to prove it.” To their great credit, the American astronauts responded to the humble cab driver with the same graciousness they showed to ambassadors and generals.
At the time, it was impossible for me to predict how this meeting would affect my own future. I would end up traveling through space, too, not as an astronaut, but in the realm of the imagination as a visual effects supervisor/producer on the various incarnations of STAR TREK, starting with THE NEXT GENERATION. The inspiration from the real space-farers at NASA and JPL was ever present with all of us on TREK, and we always appreciated the support they gave us.