One event from ’69 that no boomer will forget

BoomerCafé recently ran an excerpt that our co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs wrote for a new book that resonates with baby boomers, a book called “1969: Are You Still Listening?: Stories & Essays.” It looks back 50 years to the end of the stormy decade that helped shape us all. Now, BoomerCafé periodically is publishing excerpts by other writers who also contributed to the book. It’s part of our series of reflections for boomers from 50 years ago.

This excerpt is by Richard Adler of Cupertino, California. It focuses on what he considers the peak accomplishment of our civilization… and his own very small part in it. Richard calls it, 1969: The Moon Landing and Me.

The United States in its relatively short reign as a global superpower has been the source of many important innovations and accomplishments, starting with its Constitution through inventions such as the telephone, the electric light bulb, atomic power and the computer. But I believe that this country’s most historic accomplishment, the one that will represent our civilization’s high point, took place in the summer of 1969.

Student protest, University of California, Berkeley, National Guard. May 22, 1969. Lonnie Wilson, photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Oakland Museum of California.

I vividly remember the moment that it happened. On the evening of July 20, 1969, I was attending a party in Northern California. I was very aware of what was about to happen that night, so I brought along a battery-operated portable Sony television set. As the historic moment got closer, I set up the TV on a table next to the home’s swimming pool. Before long, a group of other party goers gathered around the set’s tiny black-and-white screen. For the next hour, we watched in awe as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin brought their lunar lander down on the surface of the moon and Armstrong descended the ladder from the craft and took the first human step on the moon.

As it happened, I had an opportunity to get a first-hand look at just how massive and far-reaching the effort to get to the moon was. In the late 1960’s, I was a graduate student in English at the University of California at Berkeley. This being the height of the 60’s, Berkeley was a lively and somewhat chaotic place. 1968 was, famously, the year of the summer of love, while 1969 was the year of People’s Park when Governor Ronald Reagan sent in the National Guard to restore law and order on the streets of Berkeley.

The Space Sciences Laboratory, later named the Samuel Silver Space Sciences Laboratory, overlooks Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the UC Berkeley campus.

But in the hills west of the campus, far above the tumult down below, was the university’s Space Sciences Laboratory, which had opened in 1966. It was funded by NASA as a center for scientific research that was intended to contribute to America’s exploration of space.

Despite my lack of scientific training, I managed to get a job at the Lab— as its librarian. To get to work, I would wend my way up Strawberry Canyon, behind the main campus, past the football stadium and the university’s botanical garden to the lab the was situated in a eucalyptus grove at the very crest of the East Bay Hills. On many days, I would drive through a thick fog that covered Berkeley’s lowlands and come out of the fog just as I reached the top. Working in the lab’s library sometimes felt as if I were flying— I could look out over the top of a thick fog bank, and was occasionally able to see the Farallon Islands some 30 miles west of the Golden Gate.

Richard Adler today.

I soon discovered that a big part of my job as librarian involved unpacking and shelving large cartons of books which arrived regularly from NASA, most of which were filled with esoteric things like calculations of the orbits of the earth and the moon. Although I grew up loving books, I had to admit that these volumes were totally inscrutable to me.

One day, a large semi-trailer arrived at the lab to deliver a new piece of equipment. It was an ultra-high resolution mass spectrometer that filled an entire room and had been air freighted from the UK to Berkeley. It was accompanied by a team of British technicians who had also flown over to install the machine, which, except for frequent tea breaks, they spent the next week doing.

One of the grad students working in the lab confided to me that one of the lab’s senior faculty researchers (a Nobel Prize winner) had convinced NASA to purchase this device because it would be extremely useful for analyzing rocks that would be brought back from the moon. But the real reason that the researcher wanted the instrument, he told me, was to study the composition of Australian tar sands that was the focus of his current interest.

Of course, I didn’t know the full scope of what went on in the lab. But it is my hope that the work that was done there, including my humble contribution, did contribute at least in some modest way to the success of the Apollo program.

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