“That’s one small step for [a] man, and one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969
I was born before humankind set foot on the moon.
That dates me, as it dates everyone else who is fifty years of age or older as of July 20, 2019.
More than dating me, though, that demographic fact situates me and all who are close to my age in the middle of what is – I would argue – an historical epoch whose enduring significance none of us will be able to fully grasp, for we are still in the middle of its unfurling.
During the first week of teaching, every semester, I always ask my students about the problem of periodization. I always ask them to think of various ways that we could (heuristically, artificially) divide the epochs of human history, never mind American history.
Rarely do my students mention the detonation of the first atomic bomb as an epochal event, though I would argue that “the atomic age” is an apt periodization for all of human history since 1945. Certainly, no one to date has mentioned “the Industrial Revolution,” never mind “the Anthropocene,” as an epochal moment or even an epochal era.
But on more than occasion, one student or another has suggested the moment when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon.
It’s not just because I can claim antiquity in relation to that ephemeral moment that I believe this is a useful divisor for Before and After.
Rather, here is what I tell my students, whenever one of them volunteers this moment as an epochal pivot in the history of humankind:
As far back as historians can go, and even farther back than that, cultures all over the world have told stories about the moon – about its origins, or its divinity, or its influence on human affairs. As far back as history goes, as far back as mythology goes, people all over the world have looked to the sky and looked to the moon and made it part of the story of who they are and what they know and what they believe. Every human culture that has ever existed, as far as we know, has in some respect reckoned with the moon as a fixture in the realm of human or heavenly knowledge. Every culture has stories about the moon. It is part of our collective memory and our diverse faiths. It was a place or a person or a presence accepted and believed in, though never touched.
On July 20, 1969, humankind touched this nearest object of its immemorial veneration.
We all still live in the penumbra of this moment, whether we chanced to be born before or after it happened.
But it happened. After thousands of years of human faith and longing, the things that were believed became the things that were seen. That is an epochal moment, still worthy of our contemplation and our awe.