My first conscious memory is a flickering image of a man clambering down the ladder of an insect-like spaceship and planting his oversized boots on the moon. The grainy shapes on the television screen were pixelated and ethereal: Deep black background of the universe, muted grey of the lunar surface, bright white spacesuit.
Though 500 million people across the globe -- one-sixth of humanity -- watched that event on television, I'm likely rare in having that as my foundational memory. I sometimes wonder how many of us know the moment that shapes the arc of a life in obvious and subtle ways.
A few hours before Neil Armstong's one small step that was a giant leap, America stood still for the news that humans had landed on the moon. Even the national pastime paused to take notice.
On July 20, 1969, at 4:20 p.m. Eastern Time, in the second game of a doubleheader, the players and coaches from the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies, along with the umpire crew, lined the baselines. The crowd stood. All bowed their heads in silence to recognize humanity's most ambitious accomplishment. The ceremony concluded with the song "God Bless America" echoing in the stands.
Just as human space flight has always given Americans a glimpse of a possible future, baseball has provided a steadying influence of tradition.
For five exciting months in 1969, it appeared as if the Cubs were going to have a year as ascendant and transformative as NASA and its moon-faring trio of astronauts. At that point, it'd been almost six decades since the Cubs had a trio of baseball-throwing players worth mentioning in newspapers. In 1910, "Tinker to Evers to Chance" appeared as refrain in the poem "Baseball's Sad Lexicon." By 1969, it'd been 25 years since the Cubs had appeared in a World Series and 61 since they'd claimed baseball's ultimate prize. I was a toddler then, when the Cubs collapsed.
I was introduced to the Cubs when I began playing pee-wee league a few years later. Baseball's language and rhythms started working their way into my summers. As a 6-year-old, an uncle sold me on becoming a catcher and a Cubs fan. His sales pitch about life as a Cubs fan included no mention of their history.
In his book A Nice Little Place on the North Side, pundit George Will describes becoming a Cubs fan at roughly the same age. He describes a fairly standard losing streak of three games that took place the summer that Will turned 7. "Had I been paying attention then, this book might not have been written," he says. "In 1948, when I was still not as discerning as one should be when making life-shaping decisions, I became a Cub fan."
Like many young boys in the 1970s, my fascination with baseball was reinforced by endless hours playing pick-up games on the local diamond, and my interests in space were reinforced by the television culture. Star Trek was already in heavy syndication; I could catch an episode every evening after school. The spring of 1973 launched the Six Million Dollar Man made-for-TV movies, featuring astronaut-turned-bionic-spy, Col. Steve Austin. That fall, Star Trek expanded in the form of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Gritty crime novelist Robert B. Parker once wrote, "Baseball is the most important thing that doesn't matter." William Wagner, a friend and author of Wrigley Blues, an in-depth look at the Cubs 2004 season, once said to me at a party, "The Apollo program is the best thing our country has ever done." Space faring and baseball have become linked for me, each representative of the best we can do as human beings.
The visionary force behind the Apollo missions was rocket engineer Wernher von Braun. For him, the Moon was merely a weigh station on a summer's journey to the Red Planet. He first codified his Mars mission plans in 1948. The planned launch date 1965, the year before I was born, three years before the first manned Apollo mission.
Von Braun's modeled his technical description of a massive scientific expedition to Mars on various Antarctic expeditions. Published in English in 1953 as The Mars Project, the plan described the Mars spacecraft as objects assembled in orbit around Earth. The necessary raw materials would be transported to low-Earth orbit by a fleet of imagined space shuttles.
Roughly thirty years later, from 1981 to 2011, America's fleet of space shuttles investigated low-Earth orbit. Along the way, they hauled materials out of our planet's gravitational well to assemble the International Space Station. But there exists no fleet of Mars-bound spaceships. Not yet.
During the 30 years the space shuttle flew, Mars plan after Mars plan emerged from NASA, university researchers and independent groups like the Planetary Society. These plans enjoyed varying degrees of political support. President George W. Bush put forward a plan that would have NASA establish a moon base before going to Mars. President Obama stopped plans for a moon return and put forward a more Mars-focused set of goals for NASA.
Like the Cubs team forever in rebuilding mode during those same years, like the team always five years of player development and free-agent acquisitions away from the postseason, the timeframe for human exploration of Mars has always been 20-30 years from the given moment. Current NASA plans call for sending astronauts to Mars in the mid-2030s.
Just this week in an op-ed piece for CNN, Obama recounted his "sense of wonder" about space exploration, so much like my own. He reminisced about his childhood memories of sitting on his grandfather's shoulders as astronauts returned from Hawaii even before they'd been to the moon. Like me, Obama belongs to Generation Space, and he sees, as I do, the college students I now teach as Generation Mars.
The rise and fall of each new Mars plan and the repeated pushing back into the future of the Mars launch date echoes the refrain recognizable to any Cubs fan: Wait till next year.
Hope returns each spring with a new federal budget, a new season. Hope rises this postseason for the Cubs and, with Obama's new, strong declaration, for sending humans to Mars and returning them safely to Earth.
My one-paragraph writing exercise for my college Spanish class stated, "Quiero ser astronauta." I want to be an astronaut. After I read the paragraph aloud in class, a woman wafting patchouli oil blurted, "That's a conservative thing to do."
Becoming an astronaut, to my mind, was a science thing to do. Linking politics and the space program hadn't occurred to my technology-focused young mind. Of course, this link has been there from the moment of President Kennedy's challenge to the nation: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." We also chose to go to the moon to beat our Cold War enemies in the space race.
Presidents have often thrown out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day of baseball season. President William Howard Taft was the first to do so in 1910. In 1989, Bush the elder sailed one, high and outside, to open an Orioles game. The Bush family ties to baseball run deep. The elder played baseball at Yale University, and the son was a part-owner of the Texas Rangers. In 2001, the son, the one who wanted to take us back to the moon before Mars, walked onto the mound at Yankee Stadium in New York before Game 3 of the World Series. The nation was reeling from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He flashed thumbs-up and threw a strike. It was arguably the finest moment of his presidency.
In 2007, Oregon State University's Darwin Barney was drafted by the Cubs and made his debut with the Chicago Cubs three years later. In 2012, Barney was, using modern statistics, the best player on a very bad team. The Cubs lost 101 games that year. Darwin Barney stands 5-10 and weighs 180 pounds. Physically, he was a reminder that baseball could be played by guys like me.
In that terrible season of 2012, the Cubs still managed to draw almost 2.9 million fans to the Friendly Confines that are Wrigley Field. The Washington Nationals and the Cincinnati Reds each won nearly 100 games that year, but the attendance average of each of those winning clubs trailed the miserable Cubs by more than 6,000 fans per game.
Built in 1914 as Weeghman Park, Wrigley stands as the second oldest venue in professional baseball behind Fenway Park, which was built two years earlier. When I visited the Friendly Confines in 2004, green plastic netting was strung overhead, put in place over some seating sections to catch falling concrete. Even after recent renovations, the park shows aging.
The space shuttles were aging too. In 2004, the year after the fatal Columbia accident, Bush the younger announced an end date for the space shuttle program. I'd never seen a spacecraft launch in person. I travelled to Florida's Space Coast for each of the final three shuttle missions and managed to see the last two launches. The physical dimensions of the launch of a rocket -- sound, heat -- are forever embedded in my consciousness. In July 2011, after almost three decades of flying to space, the shuttle program ended.
The following year, in August 2012, as the Cubs floundered through their 101-loss season, NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars. During the Planetary Society's day-long symposium, science-fiction novelist David Brin opined that we went to the moon 30 years to soon.
I've thought about that statement in the ensuing years. Maybe our ambition allowed us to succeed in the moon landing when our technology should have failed us. The Apollo astronauts with whom I've talked expected to see humans on Mars by now. It hasn't happened yet, and those men are dying off. Only seven of 12 humans to walk on the moon are still among us. The youngest to walk on the moon, Charlie Duke, is now 81 years old.
This year, the Cubs opened the season in Anaheim, less than two miles from my front door. I was there in person. The Cubs won. The Cubs finished the first week of the season with a stellar 5-1 record.
The Cubs finished the season with the best record in baseball. They have won their National League Division Series. Among experts even before the end of the season, they were the odds-on favorite to win the World Series, with a 23 percent chance. Their record has regularly been compared to the 1907 Cubs, the second-to-last group of Cubs to win the World Series.
I'll turn 50 during this year's World Series. Already, my high school and college reunions have thinned. Cancer, heart attacks, car accidents, the immutable statistics of life and death have already claimed friends and family of my generation. It's likely that no one alive has seen a Cubs championship team from the stands. Cubs fans have always talked of it as a few years off in the distance, and I can't quite bring myself to believe that this may be the year.
The promise of Mars, mirage-like off in a distance that never seems to arrive, hasn't diminished my love for all things space. The lack of a Cubs World Series has never dissuaded me from donning my favorite Cubs cap and cramming myself into a Red Line 'L' car with hundreds of other boozy, sweaty fans. I'm happy to make my way to Wrigley Field for a 1:05 p.m. start time wearing my NASA T-shirt. Space and baseball are a way of living.
Earlier this year, Elon Musk -- builder of rockets and electric cars -- announced plans to send an unmanned spacecraft to the surface of Mars in 2018. It isn't people, and it isn't NASA. But it's a step in the right direction. Now Obama asserts that humans will not only travel to Mars within a couple of decades but that some of us will live there.
Will I live long enough to see a Cubs World Series or humans launched toward Mars? At least for the Cubs, maybe this is the year. I hope so, but I don't know. That's OK. The things that I get to do and the manner in which I do them have come to outstrip the potential of what I cannot predict.
The Cubs and space exploration have given me two pastimes as well as a career as a scientist, librarian and writer. These pastimes have created moments I share with the important people in my life. What more do I need? Still, I hope.
Douglas R. Dechow is the co-author of Generation Space: A Love Story, forthcoming in April 2017, and is currently a visiting fellow at The American Library in Paris. Follow him on Twitter @dougdechow.