My grandfather Abe Gussowski was born in a shtetl near what is now the Poland-Lithuania border, a couple of years after the Wright brothers flew their first powered aircraft. He survived more than a decade after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Struggling from immigrant child, to the Merchant Marines, and then to mechanic at the aeronautics division of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation — a direct descendent of Orville and Wilbur’s original company — Abe might have had some gear-and-grease sense of what it took to get men to the moon and back again. It left him awestruck, if not actually disbelieving.
Abe’s version of the moon landing is a story of the American Dream fulfilled. Like the Manhattan Project, one of the ushers of the American Century, it was a dream of the technological sublime hitched to an arch political cause. The American Dream had more or less worked for Abe. He and my grandmother Sylvia rose out of poverty in the New World while my grandmother’s relatives were turned to ashes in the Old World. Neither were educated beyond the 8th grade. Abe and Sylvia raised a son — my father Herb — who became part of an educational elite at Union College and then Yale Law School, a meteoric rise from Paterson, New Jersey.
I was born just a few years before the moon landing, and it is one of my earliest memories. I watched the two, fuzzy, black-and-white bobbing moon men on the cathode-ray TV screen. Witnessing this event — happening at some unimaginable distance, and occurring only through the use of some unimaginable technologies, and with the purpose of some unimaginable genius and commitment — was important to us. I would only later learn the names of the intrepid Armstrong and Aldrin, and the forsaken Collins (and still later the story of the “hidden figures”), but I diligently followed the rise of the Space Shuttle program, even building a model of the Enterprise atop its Boeing 747 for a school science fair. Together with the environmental movement, the energy crisis, and biotechnology, the tumultuous advance of the space program in the mid-1970s set me on my intellectual pathway to studying science and technology policy.