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Eric Frydenlund: Apollo 11 brought science into our living rooms
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Eric Frydenlund: Apollo 11 brought science into our living rooms

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PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — Fifty years ago my parents and I gathered around the television in the lobby of our family-owned motel to watch the grainy images returning from the surface of the moon. Time evaporated into suspended animation as the pedestrian activities of commerce, work and school receded into the back of the mind and the visuals of history made on the moon appeared on our television screen.

The year before, the little-understood masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” had appeared in movie theaters across the land. I had seen the movie in a Prairie du Chien theater, awestruck as I watched the opening credits featuring the sun rising over a crescent Earth to the inspirational music of Richard Straus’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” The movie, short on dialogue and long on imagery, centered on the image of a black monolith, planted by an alien civilization, standing in an excavation on the moon.

Now, on my television screen, I see Neil Armstrong, a real earthling with a name seemingly taken from fiction, standing on the moon. In an instant, science fiction described not only by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark in the movie, but many other science fiction writers, had become reality. More importantly, the tools of science — taught in schools across the land and increasingly applied to our everyday lives — became visually accessible.

Violet Dohse, my mathematics teacher in high school, could scribe a perfect circle on the blackboard, joining the ends of her chalk line in orbit around its center as surely as Gemini astronauts could rendezvous their spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. In that perfect circle described on the blackboard, mathematics became understandable to me.

In 1969, astronauts scribed perfect circles — yes, they were actually ellipses — around the moon, then descended to its surface in a spidery looking spacecraft using the mathematics Ms. Dohse taught us on the blackboard with such precision and elegance. Walter Cronkite, with his astronaut sidekick Wally Schirra, described in his resonate voice the perfections of science and mathematics, reciting escape velocity, rendezvous, trajectory and mid-course corrections in such terms that we imagined ourselves experts.

Armstrong’s “small step” on the moon and Buzz Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation” brought science fiction to fruition, yes, but it delivered the labors of centuries of scientists into visual focus. The swell of pride and awe felt that day in July of 1969 rose in our throats on the visionary words of science fiction writers and the tenacious work of scientists.

In 1971, armed with the knowledge bestowed on me in part by Violet Dohse, I left for college. My first semester, I traded in my slide rule — that 12-inch ruler with working parts that gave me a tactile understanding of logarithms — for one of Hewlett-Packard’s first handheld calculators. Computer banks, occupying rooms the size of small gymnasiums, would begin their inexorable march toward miniaturization, landing on our desktop.

The Apollo missions would continue for another year, sending back images from the moon, transferring the unimaginable into our imaginations. Critics would say the moon missions represented superfluous distractions from the more socially important issues of Vietnam and racial discrimination. Yet they offered a welcome distraction to many, a path from divisiveness to the symmetry of orbits and the synergy of human ingenuity.

Life returned to normal at our family business and in homes across the world after Apollo 11. Yet “normal,” spurred by science and imagination, had acquired new meaning in the definition of what is possible.

Frydenlund lives in Prairie du Chien: epfrydenlund@gmail.com.

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