The 40th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, by the crew of Apollo 11 in July 1969, is the inspiration for this post.
Through most of the second half of the twentieth century, the Cold War and the conflicts, tensions and competition between the United States and the USSR and their allies dominated world politics. Its icy tentacles froze thought and reason, destroyed lives and economies and drove a sharp wedge between the good guys and the bad. Who you regarded as the good guys or the bad ones depended, of course, on where you lived and what your government and newspapers led you to believe. Big Brother cast his dark shadow over the lands he surveyed. The scale of this war was enormous. It strained beyond its earthly boundaries, and exploded into outer space, resulting in the Space Race of the 1960s and 1970s (and on a much smaller, far less thrilling scale, the 1980s). The lunar landings were the most daring, audacious and electrifying of all, completely mind-boggling in how (almost) perfectly they were executed with the technology of the time that today seems simple, unsophisticated and even primitive.
Apollo 17 view of earth (Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the South Pole)
At the same time, on a much more modest scale, on a far more humble stage – within the walls of our home in Madras – there raged another Cold War, complete with a Space Race and Big Brother casting his shadow. It was the rivalry between my older brother and me – an overawed, terrified younger sister – and it permeated every pore of my being.
This, to me, was the Real Deal. I was too young to really care about or understand the real Cold War, to apprehend the reports in the Indian newspapers which glorified the Soviet stand and gleefully wrote about American failures in Vietnam, in stark contrast to the rosy American version of events in Time Magazine (which we received every week at home). But the conflict, tensions and competition between my brother and me were, to me, every bit as deadly as those between those two faraway superpowers.
We were locked in mortal combat over everything. A case in point: the affections of our dog, Len. We adored Len passionately, and wanted him to reciprocate this passion in a fair and just manner – that is, my brother wanted Len all to himself, while I was certain that he liked me more. Len, for whom food mattered above all else, showed his blatant disregard for our pitched struggles for his affections, wagging his tail impartially at whoever bore him a morsel of food. My brother resolved the impasse by apportioning parts of Len to himself and me. He made himself “owner” of most of Len – his beautiful head, the soulful eyes, the glossy ears, the soft body, and most of his bushy tail. I got the last two inches of the tail. I was to touch only that part of Len that “belonged” to me, and my brother watched over me like a hawk to ensure that I did not poach into his property.
Our much-beloved Len
Like the other Cold War, ours also exploded into space. We had our own Space Race. My brother was an avid follower of the NASA space program, and wrote regularly to NASA’s Public Affairs Office in Houston, Texas. Every now and then, a large yellow packet from NASA would arrive in the mail, filled with exciting, glossy pictures of astronauts, spacecrafts and space, and mission reports. In rare moments of generosity, my brother would let me peruse these, threatening dire consequences if so much as even a hint of a fingerprint marred the pictures. And soon, I was hooked. The sheer thrill and excitement of the space missions, the smiling faces of the astronauts and friendly reports from NASA, the impossible adventurousness of it all, had me in thralldom. There was something else too. For all our fierce (and mostly one-sided) sibling rivalry, I really admired my brother. I thought (and still think) he was one of the smartest people in the world. I was desperate to impress him, to show him that I, too, was interested in high-minded intellectual pursuits like gathering information on the space program.
Apollo 11 on the moon, July 20, 1969
Apollo 17's Lunar Rover
And so I wrote to NASA, and started receiving my own yellow packets in the mail. My brother did not like this, although he was careful to conceal his feelings. He redoubled his efforts and letters to NASA. I did too. The yellow packets flowed into our mailbox, thick and fast. The mail was scrutinized fiercely, and each kept close tabs on what the other received. And though my brother had had a head start, it was soon a neck to neck race. I could match him fact for fact. I knew all the minutiae about the Mercury program, the Gemini program, the Apollo flights, Skylab. There may have been the slightest hint of thawing in the real Cold War when President Nixon and Comrade Kosygin signed a space co-operation agreement in 1972 that lead to the Apollo-Soyuz Program but at home, our little Cold War continued unyieldingly, relentlessly. There was no corresponding thawing in our relations.
Skylab 4 Space Station
Then came Apollo 11, the first of the manned lunar landings. And my brother, who had started his collection well before I did, received a photograph of the crew, autographed by the three of them: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. It was his trump card. He reminded me every day that he had an autographed copy of the Apollo 11 crew, while I did not. All I had was an unautographed photograph of the Apollo 11 three, tossed to me one day in an insouciantly careless manner by my brother who said that he had no use for it any more, since he now had Neil Armstrong’s autograph. Oh, I had a bunch of other astronaut autographs. But none of them was the First Man on the Moon. It made me crazy with jealousy. Every time we had an argument, he ended it decisively by stating: Hah, I have Neil Armstrong’s autograph and you don’t!
It was more than what anybody could bear. I was determined: I would get Neil Armstrong’s autograph. That would show him. Hah!
Fast forward a couple of years. My interest in the space program continued, while my brother’s dimmed a bit as he moved on to other interests. He was still ahead, as far as he was concerned. He still had Neil Armstrong’s autograph. And I did not.
One hot summer’s day, I was browsing through magazines in the air conditioned comfort of the American Center Library in Madras. My eye caught a tiny news item tucked into the corner of a page: it stated that Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was now in Cincinnati Ohio , teaching engineering. That was all.
That was all it took. I went home and wrote a long, soulful, embarrassingly gushy letter to Neil Armstrong. I must have been no more than 13 years old. I told him how much I admired him and that I thought he was the bravest man in the universe. I elaborated on this theme for a couple of paragraphs. Then I told him that I had a nasty brother, one who goaded me on a daily basis that he had Neil Armstrong’s autograph while I did not. I begged him to set right this injustice. I asked him if he would send me an autographed photograph of himself. But not just that. That would merely even the playing field. I wanted to one-up my brother in a major way. Surely Mr. Armstrong, the bravest man in the universe, and possibly the kindest too, would understand? Could he personalize the autograph, write my name, perhaps? Please?
I mailed the letter. I addressed it to:
First Man on the Moon
Professor of Engineering
United States of America
One month later, I received this in the mail.
Dear brother, I rest my case. I won the Space Race.
(All photographs are courtesy NASA, and are from my collection.)