How long will it take to get to the Moon?

Friday, October 4, 1957, 5:30 PM. Troop 29 was camped out in the woods just across the Maryland state line from the Triangle. My father had driven several of us with our equipment in his ’55 Mercury station wagon. The parents were gone now. Our tents were pitched and campfires started. Eddie H. had just made an asshole out of himself by running around with his pants off with a hard on. A couple of Scouts slapped him with towels as he ran by. Everybody was screaming. The scoutmaster, Mr. Krantz, didn’t pay any attention. He never paid much attention to ordinary Scouts. The handsome Eagle Scout, Larry Kneisley, and two Life scouts, bedecked with merit badges and other talismans stood off to one side, looking on disapprovingly.

Evening came and the smell of hot dogs and burning marshmallows wafted between the tents. Tired, we sat around on logs, eating and talking. There were no mosquitoes. We talked, as usual, about sex. Alfie H. was supposed to have blown a hamster. Eddie H. had shown us that he could pee with a hard on. Al S.’s sister, Lucy S., known as “Juicy Lucy” and her friend Susy S. were supposed to be lesbians. But mostly the conversation was about blow jobs – such-and-such was supposed to have blown such-and-such. I didn’t get it. I leaned over to my tent-mate, Fred Stow, a Tenderfoot like me, and muttered, “What is the purpose of a blow job? I don’t understand why anyone would want one.” Fred leaned back and replied in a low voice, “Well, it’s to get the come out.” Fred’s father had worked on the Manhattan Project, so he should know.

Somebody blew taps on a bugle and we turned in to our tents. Fred, in his sleeping bag, was listening to his transistor radio – a novelty at that time: a plastic cube two or three inches on a side with a pair of earpieces. Fred would not let anybody else listen to his radio. After a few minutes he took out the earplugs and turned off his flashlight. He left the radio in the space between us. When the grunting noises of his masturbation had subsided and I figured he was asleep I took the radio, put the headphones in my ears and turned it on.

I turned the tiny tuning dial carefully. A bunch of static. There wasn’t any frequency calibration on the dial, but by tuning all the way to the low end I was able to pick up WFIL, Philadelphia, playing Top 40 on 560 kilocycles. I listened to “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby” and “Jailhouse Rock”, but when Johnny Mathis came on I decided to change frequency and soon, on WOR AM 710 from New York, I heard something so astounding that I still cannot quite believe it. The announcer’s voice was deep, tense:

“The Naval Research Laboratory announced thirty minutes ago that it has recorded two crossings of the Soviet earth satellite over the United States. It said that one had passed near Washington. Soviet reports indicate that the satellite is broadcasting on frequencies near twenty and forty megacycles.”

“U. S. military experts have said that the satellite would have no practicable military application in the near future. They said, however, that study of such satellites could provide valuable information that might be applied to flight studies for intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

“The Soviet satellites could not be used to drop atomic or hydrogen bombs on the United States, scientists have said. Their real significance would be in providing scientists with important new information concerning the nature of the sun, cosmic radiation, solar radio interference and static-producing phenomena radiating from the north and south magnetic poles. All this information would be of inestimable value for those who are working on the problem of sending missiles and eventually men into the vast reaches of the solar system.”

I felt a cold feeling. I wondered if this is what it felt like to be grown up. There had been no doubt in the announcer’s voice. It was true. I considered waking the other boys to tell them, but decided not to. I knew what their reaction would be. “Oh, bull shit. The Russians claim to have invented everything.” So I carefully replaced Fred’s radio in exactly the position he had left it and lay on top of my sleeping bag, thinking. It was simply not possible. The Russians could not be allowed to be first in space. But what was to be done? The United States was behind. Who would be the first to send astronauts to the moon. How long would it take? 1972, I thought to myself. By 1972 the United States will send rockets with astronauts to the moon.

In the morning nobody seemed to know the news except me. After breakfast and knot-tying practice I approached Larry Kneisley. Larry was two years older than I, an Eagle scout: a friendly, serious guy whom I admired a lot. He was a little intimidating, but I was able to talk to him, and shared the Sputnik news with him. As I expected, he was not at all dismissive or skeptical. He shared my concern that the Russians could not be allowed to be first in space. “We have to get there first,” he said. “To the Moon, you mean?” I asked. “Yes, to the Moon. We have to become astronauts. How long do you think it will take?” “Well,” I responded, “probably 1970 or 1972.” “Good,” said Larry, “I’ll see you on the Moon in 1972,” and we shook hands on it.

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