FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY ONE

Matt Jones in the Southern Review, via Longreads.

While the U.S.S.R. eventually won the space race in 1961 by sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit, the Americans stole the show again on July 16, 1969, when NASA launched a Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida. Four days and nearly 240,000 miles later, the three-man crew of Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong arrived at their destination. Collins piloted the command module Columbia as Aldrin and Armstrong descended toward the moon’s surface inside the lunar module named after the national bird of the United States: the Eagle.

Armstrong’s heart rate jumped from 77 bpm to 156 bpm as Aldrin called out the altitude readings: “750 feet, coming down at 23 degrees . . . 700 feet, 21 down . . . 400 feet, down at 9.” When they finally touched down, Armstrong quietly said, “Houston. Tranquility Base here. Eagle has landed.”

The dusky seaside sparrow was still stuck back down on Earth. In fact, in that same year, one biologist observed that only thirty singing male dusky seaside sparrows remained on Merritt Island. The scientific community had been sounding the alarm about the disappearance of the dusky for years, but there was little concern shown beyond the small circle of ornithologists studying Florida’s Atlantic coast. The average sparrow is about as large as a human heart, though not nearly as important to the survival of actual humans. Perhaps the greatest thing the dusky seaside sparrow had working against it was that it was not as glorious or impressive as other species. It was no bald eagle. It was no heart. It was no moon.