Reflections of a Would-Be Astronaut, 40 Years Later

07/19/2009 11:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was a kid, I was pretty convinced I was going to become an astronaut. In fact, I was obsessed. I memorized tons of facts and figures about the space program, learned the names and backgrounds of all the astronauts in each of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space projects, and was even on the NASA mailing list.

My Dad was a mechanical engineer whose company did major work in the aerospace industry, and I spent hours pouring over insider magazines I found in his office, cutting out pictures of the latest space vehicle prototypes and hanging them in my bedroom for inspiration. I constructed, painted and launched just about available every Estes model rocket, including the huge Big Bertha I launched in my 6th grade science class at Penn Wynne School. After a successful countdown and launch, the entire class ended up running about a quarter-mile down the street chasing the rocket to retrieve it as the wind carried the parachute far away from our athletic field, much to the chagrin of our teacher, Mr. Fritz.

I spent countless hours doodling pictures of rockets, astronauts, and the LEM, the lunar landing module, which I thought was just the coolest alien-looking thing I had ever seen, imagining what it would be like to be one of the astronauts landing on the moon for the first time. My crowning achievement was building and painting a 4-foot Revell plastic model kit of the Saturn V rocket, which I proudly displayed in my room.

So imagine how I felt when I learned that the moon landing was going to happen on July 20, 1969 -- right smack dab in the middle of when I would be at summer camp at Camp Saginaw in Oxford, Pennsylvania -- where we didn't have a television set. I would be missing what to me would be the most important event of my then-young life. As much as I loved camp, I told my parents that I would be willing to forego going that summer just so I could watch the moon landing live.

Luckily, a number of the counselors and older campers didn't want to miss it either so the camp director, Herb Cohen, arranged for some televisions to be brought in for the evening. So those of us who were interested were allowed for just this one special occasion to stay up late in order to be able to watch the moon landing as it happened.

Although it was forty years ago, I can remember that night as if it were yesterday. Walking up the hill to the camp cafeteria from my bunk in my pajamas in the still, humid night to the sound of chirping crickets and the lights of fireflies, ripe with anticipation. A bunch of us crowded in the dimly lit cafeteria around the small black and white TV sets with the fuzzy pictures being beamed in live from the moon.

The feeling of disbelief, wonder and amazement upon seeing Neil Armstrong take that "One Small Step For Man, One Giant Leap For Mankind". The spontaneous, emotional eruption of hoots, hollers and backslaps. And walking back to my bunk in the late night when it was over, looking up at the moon on the starry night thinking to myself, "wow, they're actually up there!"

Many years later, on the day I finished my last law school final exam, I convinced my classmate and friend, Jeff Shapiro, to drive with me up to Cape Canaveral from Miami to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle. We drove out the night before, and slept in lounge chairs we had set up on the shore directly across from the launch site a couple of miles away. We awoke to the sounds of a three-ring circus as hundreds of others had somehow joined us during the night. It's hard to describe what it was like to actually experience the sights and sounds of a real rocket taking off right in front of me after years of only watching launches on TV and shooting off model rockets. For a day, I was that young kid again.

Last year, I had the honor of meeting one of my childhood heroes, Captain Gene Cernan, at the Seoul Digital Forum we were both attending. Captain Cernan was the last man on the moon as Commander of Apollo 17 (and previously was the second man to walk in space as part of the Gemini 9 mission and also flew Apollo 10). What most people don't realize is that Captain Cernan actually spent much more time on the moon than the Apollo 11 astronauts, sleeping for three nights on the lunar surface in the LEM. Watching him talk about that experience, and seeing the look in his eyes as he spoke, it was clear he had been deeply and permanently moved by it. What seemed to have affected him most was his being able to look back at our small, blue planet from his unique perspective on the moon and truly realize that we all live together on it as one.

I kept the New York Times from July 20, 1969 and later framed it along with the first-day covers with the stamps commemorating some of the anniversaries of the moon landing, which for years I hung in my office. Although I obviously never did follow my dream to become an astronaut, the "can do" attitude of our country during that time clearly affected me in a major way.

So for those that say reaching for the stars is a waste of time and money when we have other far more pressing endeavors back home to deal with, I beg to differ. There is nothing more important than inspiring young people to think big and believe that they can do anything -- even what is seemingly impossible - if they just put their minds to it. And by looking up and out, rather than just in and around, we are reminded of something we all too easily forget -- the commonality of what all we all share on this planet. On July 20, 1969, regardless of our nationality, religion, age or creed, we all shared in something amazing as citizens of the earth. On the 40th anniversary of this remarkable event, it is certainly a bond worth remembering.