One crackling September morning in 1969, my first grade teacher told the class to line up for a trip to the auditorium. I stuck my chewing gum to the underside of my desk. In the auditorium, we filed into the front row and sat down. Our legs swung mid-air as we craned our necks to look around. Every kid in the school was there. A projector screen lit up in the front of the cavernous room, and the teacher told us to pay attention.
There was a white tower in the center of the screen. An announcer’s voice droned, counting down by seconds. It seemed to go on forever, but it was better than fractions. I must have looked away, because the next thing I remember is a roaring sound, and turning my head to see a small ball of fire arc across the screen like the baseballs my brother threw to me in our front yard after school. After a few seconds, I heard the tape fluttering as it came off the projector reel, and the screen went dark. In the dim auditorium, the future was hurtling toward us, but we didn’t see it coming.
The next video showed a ladder hanging from a strange object. A man in a puffy white suit was descending it, bouncing like a deflated balloon over the rungs. I would later learn that object was the lunar module, Eagle and the man Neil Armstrong.
We were the analog kids. Born in the time of rockets. Of motorcades and assassinations. Of atomic bombs, napalm, missiles pointed toward Florida, police batons and cracked skulls–the heirs of Dylan and Hendrix–but we were oblivious to all of it. One small step, one giant leap–we didn’t care. Outside the auditorium’s high windows, the afternoon thrummed. I wanted to get back to the Nancy Drew books I read sitting on my parents’ couch eating apples, the tilted fort my brother and I were building out of old two-by-fours and plywood, the spreading walnut tree in a field where I sat with my seven-year-old boyfriend and ate sweet, earthy nuts in the shade.
My grandmother gave me a poster and a commemorative coin. The coin was cool against my fingers as I turned it over and over in my hand. On the poster’s glossy expanse, the lunar module sat on the moon’s pocked surface like a hulking insect, its segmented legs planted in a crater. Neil Armstrong stood in front of it in his spotless spacesuit, the blue, starred NASA emblem just above his heart and the United States flag on his sleeve. His helmet tucked beneath one arm, he smiled benevolently at children in their bedrooms all across America. It was not until I was much older, and heard the news of Armstrong’s death on the radio watching stray leaves in my teacup drift toward its blue curvature, that I would look back and realize that because the moon has no atmosphere the poster’s scene was impossible.
I would be close to half a century old, and the kids around me would be digital. Born in the time of burning skyscrapers from which people fell, twisting in the air like injured birds. The time of predator drones, mass extinctions, economic collapse. The bearers of irradiated chromosomes, caught in the crosshairs of satellite arrays. The inheritors of the millennium. LED screens would flicker in their eyes. Rising seas would lap at their feet. I would pity, admire, and fear them.
Human beings cannot survive in a vacuum. This is what would have happened to Neil Armstrong if he had taken off his helmet in that dusty lunar sea: The low pressure of space would have sucked the oxygen out of his lungs. For a few seconds, he would have realized he needed to put his helmet back on, but then the deoxygenated blood would reach his brain, and he would lose consciousness. As he did, he would feel the saliva on his tongue bubbling; liquids in space evaporate within seconds. Gasses would form in his tissues. His body would swell to more than twice its normal size, and his skin would turn blue. He would be dead within minutes, his eyes fixed upon the star-strobed darkness of the coming age.
Susan Kieffer is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, where she studied Environmental Sciences and English and received several awards for her writing. She has loved language for as long as she can remember, and been writing since she was thirteen. A lifelong resident of New England, and wanderer of its rocky coast, she lives in a small Boston apartment with a rambunctious parrotlet and a sweet, elderly cockatiel. Her work has appeared in The Watermark, AMC Outdoors, and Hot Metal Bridge, among other publications.