While on vacation, I watched the kids walk to the edge of an ocean. It wasn’t their first time to the ocean. They’d been to Sand Beach in Acadia National Park, which looks out into the Atlantic. But on this beach, the Atlantic spread across the horizon from one side to the other.
It took a photo of the ocean as it looked that day.
Watching the kids stand there, I imagined a young John Adams looking out at the ocean from the hills overlooking Boston. It must have looked formidable. Eventually he crossed the ocean, taking the 40-day long voyage to Europe. Did Adams ever wonder if faster travel across the Atlantic was possible someday? I wanted to explain to the kids that the ocean is so big that it once took people 40 days to cross to the other side. Today, it can be done in six hours or less.
Instead, I kept silent. They kicked their toes in the sand, got their feet wet, and returned to where I was standing so that we could get some lunch.
When I read last week that Gene Cernan had died, I thought of my kids staring out at the ocean. Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon, and I get the sense that he felt it was a dubious title. He didn’t want to be the last man to walk on the moon.
Did Cernan, as a child, ever stand at the ocean and marvel at how big it was? Did he look up at the moon and think, no one will ever get there! I have read a great deal about the Apollo program over the years. I feel like I know many of the astronauts in the program from the numerous biographies, and histories I’ve devoured. I have also read about the early attempts to cross the Atlantic ocean, attempts made before Christopher Columbus. As a pure technical challenge, it is probably harder to go to the moon than it was to make that first Atlantic ocean crossing.
Still, it should have gotten easier. It takes practice. How many ships (and lives) have been lost crossing the Atlantic ocean? Too many to count, probably, but it is easier now than ever before, due largely to the fact that we kept trying. We learned from our setbacks and we pushed forward.
I was an infant when Gene Cernan stepped onto the moon, something that was a non-event compared to when Neil Armstrong did it three years earlier. History tells me that people had lost interest. We’d done it, now let’s go do something else. Let’s fix other problem. I understand this and empathize. Or I do until I stand at the edge of an ocean, marvel at its size, its power to shape the weather, and very world itself.
It took a long time for us to conquer the ocean. Leif Erikson made his way from Europe to North America, and it would be another 500 years before Christopher Columbus did it. The moon is harder and it will take more time, but I am still optimistic that one day, traveling to the moon will be as routine as traveling across the ocean.
I’m equally optimistic that someone other than Cernan will bear the title of “last person on the moon” when my kids stand at the edge of an ocean, watching their kids walk timidly toward the shore.