Neil Armstrong, NASA
FILE - In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity.

SALT LAKE CITY — Eastern Long Island, New York has a southern fork that contains an area commonly known as the Hamptons, a summer enclave for the wealthy ready to leave Manhattan behind and enjoy the sun and beach in equal measure.

It was here, in the village of Sag Harbor, that my maternal grandmother invited my family to vacation in July 1969 in a beach-front home rented for the family gathering. I was 10 years old. Three years prior my parents had moved us from New York to the San Francisco Bay Area, an area of rich opportunity and a West Coast mindset I only later realized was drastically different from those early years on Long Island where baseball in the streets occupied many of our hours.

Neil Armstrong, NASA
FILE - In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface with temperatures ranging from 243 degrees above to 279 degrees below zero. Astronaut Michael Collins flew the command module.

I was born in 1959, the year author Fred Kaplan refers to as "The year everything changed." Many think 1969 should share that honor, for its hippie-inspired flower power, "Summer of Love" in San Francisco and anti-establishment focus that pushed into the 1970s.

But 1959 brought the birth of the microchip and a computer revolution, the first two American deaths in Vietnam, the rise of free jazz and "new journalism" and the one event that perhaps surpassed all others: the launch of a Soviet rocket carrying the Lunik 1 space capsule from a base in Kazakhstan.

As Kaplan writes in his book, "1959," it "sailed past the moon, and pushed free of earth's orbit, becoming the first man-made object to revolve around the sun among the celestial bodies."

Now, 10 years later, my mother called us in from the beach to sit in front of a scratchy black and white television to watch the moments when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. It was miraculous. My mother this week said "we couldn't believe it was happening," so astonishing was this milestone.

My grandmother was born in Springville, Utah, in 1907. Her life carried her from Utah to New York and Connecticut where she spent the majority of her life. She was also there in front of the TV that day. From her vantage point it was not only miraculous to be on the moon, but just as astonishing to watch a live broadcast from the moon to our living rooms.

Such events bring people together, and on July 20, 1969, it also brought generations of families together in a common event.

Deseret News journalist Lois Collins this week in her article reflecting on the Apollo 11 missionposed the question: "Would an undertaking of that magnitude be possible in this fractured political landscape? Is America more divided than in the tumultuous '60s — or could we unite behind a grand feat like walking on the moon? If so, what would that feat be?"

The story appears Sunday in print on page A1, but is also online as the nation moves toward Saturday's 50-year anniversary of the walk on the moon.

The achievement did not end strife. Students were killed at Kent State less than a year later. Protests of the Vietnam war and shameful reactions to our returning soldiers followed in later years. Watergate would bring crisis to our government and the resignation of the president whose signature adorns the placard affixed to the Lunar Module Eagle that landed on the moon.

And yet … the common goal showed the value of sacrifice from many and revealed the power of faith — faith that this big thing could be accomplished and faith in the ability of selfless men and women to accomplish it.

The space race launched in 1957 and accelerated in 1959. It culminated with the moon walk in 1969. Much would be accomplished in space following that historic occasion, but without a common goal, the nation's space exploration plans also wandered.

4 comments on this story

Last week I returned to a beach, this time on the West Coast, and pondered what occurred 50 years ago. It was another family vacation and this time I was in the role of grandfather, not child. The beach is dominated by conversations of sun, sand and surf. Yet invariably, it is the cool breeze of the ocean and the glow of the moon at night that has us gazing upward and pondering, what does it all mean?

William Anders, who together with fellow astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell traveled close to the moon on Apollo 8, circling it 10 times before returning home, noted the following about our space exploration and the value of reaching for something great:

“We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

That's a lesson worth repeating. And it's one we learn by looking up beyond ourselves.