The Geography of Space Exploration: For All Humankind
The following is the entire first chapter of For All Humankind by Tanya Harrison & Danny Bednar. The book is available now online and in book stores everywhere.
Lying in bed staring up at the stone ceiling of the St. Ottilien Monastery, fatigued, exhausted, and still recovering from the most horrible of atrocities, Elly was torn between emotions. A part of him was relieved and felt safe for the first time in years. The other part of him was intensely angry and overcome with hatred.
It was the spring of 1945. Elly Gotz was seventeen and recuperating in a makeshift hospital near the town of Geltendorf in the south of Germany. Looking up from his bed, he saw a three hundred-year-old stone ceiling held up by old wooden arches. The monastery was a cold place, made up of the hard surfaces of stone floors and wood benches. The wheeled-in hospital cots were the only softness, and the first comfort, Elly and most other recovering people there had felt in years.
The long halls of the monastery housed dozens of other weakened men, women, and children. All had just been rescued from the main Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. Among these men was Elly’s father, a fifty-four year- old Lithuanian man who now barely weighed his own age in pounds. Elly himself only weighed about seventy pounds and often struggled to lift his emaciated body from the bed. When he did have the strength, he would walk the stone stairs of the monastery to exercise and rebuild what muscle he could.
Most days, if he wasn’t exploring the grassy surroundings of the monastery, Elly was with his father and the other survivors in their shared room. Echoed voices from vibrant Conversations filled the long stone halls: German, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian, among others.
Like everyone there, Elly had been rescued from the darkest of situations. His body saved from the slave labour and starving conditions that would have taken his life eventually, his mind saved from the constant presence of death and the thought that, at any moment, he or his father could be killed.
While the physical torture of the Holocaust was over, Elly’s mind remained in a dark place. He was full of hate for those who had done such horrible things to him and millions of other Jewish people across Europe. By the end of World War II, over fifteen million people had been killed by the Nazi regime. Six million of these were European Jews, singled out for genocide by the Nazis and murdered in mass killings at concentration camps as part of the Holocaust — what the Jewish community now calls the Shoah.
Slowly gaining back their strength, Elly and his father spent much time trying to find Elly’s mother and the rest of the family. Day after day they were sending frantic letters to the Red Cross. As he wrote each letter, Elly wondered: Could he ever live a meaningful life? Was he to be forever full of hate for the people who had done this?
At night, when he couldn’t sleep, he thought about the hate that had begun to overwhelm him. He knew the entire rest of his life would be defined by how he chose to let this hatred affect him. He had a choice to make.
Four years later, Elly was in Johannesburg, South Africa, studying to become an electrical engineer at Witwatersrand (Wits) University. To do so he had left home, and his parents, in Rhodesia (known today as Zimbabwe). Despite the difficulty of being away from family after enduring so much to be reunited, the 21 year-old was thrilled to be out in the world and attending university learning about two of his favorite subjects: physics and engineering.
For Elly, the best part of university was being surrounded by other people interested in science. He and his friends would come to class early to talk about everything happening in the world. At the time, major scientific fields were undergoing a revolution. Albert Einstein’s theories were still new and being hotly tested and debated in physics lectures around the world. The computer chip had only recently been invented and was paving the way forward beyond the primitive technology of World War II, and engineers in America and Russia were successfully launching rockets high enough to pierce the atmosphere and into space.
Elly would walk to class among Johannesburg’s worldfamous Jacaranda trees that gave the Wits University campus a bright purple hue amongst the otherwise green landscape. As beautiful as the Wits campus was, his gaze was never limited to just the greenery. Whenever a plane flew overhead, Elly would stop. He would try to see if he could tell what kind it was. He was absolutely fascinated by flight. Before the war, his dream had been to become a pilot, to control a machine in the air and leave the ground behind.
After the war, things felt a bit different. Becoming a pilot didn’t seem realistic. First and foremost, Elly wanted an education. He decided to become an engineer, and his talents made him well-suited to chase this goal. He loved to create new ways of doing things, to invent machines to solve problems, and to question old beliefs. In short, he was a born inventor, able to think differently than others his age and always curious if things could be done a new way. This habit of questioning things didn’t always do Elly favors.
One semester, when his class was learning about the makeup of waveforms, Elly doubted his professor’s claim that an irregular wave can be broken into an endless number of regular sine waves. The professor proceeded to schedule a lesson specifically to prove that the theory was correct. That day Elly happened to be late, arriving a few minutes into the lecture. As he walked into the lab, he immediately heard the professor say, “There he is, the doubting Thomas” — an old nickname for people who are skeptical by nature.
After the professor successfully proved the nature of irregular waves, Elly would have to put up with being called “doubting Thomas” for a few more years. But he wasn’t bothered by his reputation for being curious and questioning. He knew his curiosity drove his desire and ability to learn. Eventually it paid off. In 1952, Elly graduated from Wits University with a degree in electrical engineering. After graduation he moved back to Rhodesia to reunite with his parents. At that time, the economy there was far from booming. Unable to find a job as an engineer, Elly put his degree to work and opened a radio repair shop. His people skills and technical know-how led to success, and he eventually opened a recording studio. In these years Elly met his wife, Esme, and had three children.
When the opportunity presented itself, Elly moved back to South Africa to open and operate a plastics factory. Sadly, South Africa in the 1950s brought new scenes of horror to Elly’s life. Racism was everywhere. Many of the white people of South Africa treated black Africans as second class, lesser humans. Elly had seen it before. He worried what would happen to his children if his family remained there, not wanting them to grow up surrounded by racism and the violence that follows it.
Because of the atmosphere in South Africa, Elly and his wife knew it was time to leave. Nothing good could come from being surrounded by so much hate, and as a recent immigrant Elly was powerless to stop it. In search of a better life for their children, he and his wife moved their family to Toronto, Canada.
They arrived in Toronto in 1964, where they bought a bungalow in the suburbs. Elly joined his brothers-in-law in operating a plastics factory in the industrial heart of the city. Canada was different from the other places he had lived, and the adjustment for his family was at times a challenge. But moving to North America came with perks as well. Elly noticed that the Canadian newspapers were full of news about NASA and spaceflight.
The engineer in him wanted to know everything — how NASA built the spacecraft, how they designed the fuel pumps, how they balanced such huge machines…everything. At the same time, Elly had never let go of his childhood dream. The aspiring pilot in him wanted to know what it felt like to sit on a rocket and launch into outer space.
In time, Elly became very successful in Toronto. His drive to learn, invent, and try new things soon paid off, presenting him with rewarding experiences and allowing him to support hundreds of people by providing them with well-paying jobs at his factory. He was also able to save for his children’s education, knowing they wouldn’t have the same difficulty he did getting high school diplomas or going to college.
Eventually, Elly and his family became Canadian citizens. He had lived in Lithuania, Germany, Norway, Rhodesia, South Africa, and now Canada. So, while he was now a proud Canadian, Elly Gotz was truly a citizen of the world. Ultimately, though, what mattered to him was not national identity or pride, but that he and his family were safe and happy. For this, Elly loved Canada. He became an active community member, volunteer, and a member of his synagogue. In the decade that followed, as a generation matured that had never experienced the Holocaust (including his own children), Elly began speaking publicly about the horrors of the Holocaust. Through his own story he would impress upon countless children the danger of one simple feeling: hate.
It was a hot Sunday in July. Elly’s home was empty. The kids were at their cottage by the lake with Esme. He spent most of the day doing a mix of reading, fixing things around the house, and working in the yard. It was an incredibly warm day in Toronto — with the humidity it felt nearly 30°C (about 86°F) all afternoon. After a few hours in the garden, it was about four o’clock. The summer sun was unrelenting, even as its angle was starting to allow for more shade behind the house. It was time for a break. To cool himself down during the day, Elly would make his way into the basement. While the basement was significantly cooler than the rest of the house, there was another reason he wanted to go down there.
Today was the day that NASA would be landing on the Moon, and the family’s brand new color TV was in the basement. Elly needed to keep checking in to see how the mission was progressing. He sat on the green basement couch and put his glass of water on the wooden coffee table in front of him. As condensation quickly formed around the outside of the glass, he turned on the TV.
The TV’s sound came on before the cathode ray screen had time to warm up and show a picture. Elly could hear newscasters describe the status of the mission. When the screen turned on, he saw that they were describing the landing procedure over images of NASA’s mission control room in Houston. He had gone downstairs just in time. The lunar landing was imminent. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on a descending flight path, taking them closer and closer to the lunar surface, with each kilometer they traveled like a plane coming in for landing. They would soon land at their target in the Mare Tranquillitatis region, just above the Moon’s equator on the side facing Earth (the same side of the moon always faces Earth).
In that moment, Elly actually began to feel a bit nervous. With a background in electrical engineering, he knew how many points of failure there were in a machine as complex as the Lunar Module. Just one circuit failure or blown transistor and the astronauts might not be able to land. The entire event would be a disaster and two men would be marooned to die in space. With the sun’s beams still blasting through the narrow basement windows, Elly listened to the voice of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news anchor explaining that there would be no video of the actual landing.
The TV cameras could only be turned on and connected to Earth once they were safely on the moon’s surface. The screen cut to a countdown clock and animation of the Lunar Module. Elly leaned forward and listened closely, cautiously, as the live audio from the astronauts played over a cartoon animation of the spacecraft descending. He could hear Buzz Aldrin speaking with ground control in Houston, as well as to Armstrong, who was piloting the LEM. Buzz was reading out numbers from the computer, rattling off how high they still were above the surface and how much fuel was remaining. The power of those computers Buzz was reading from was unimaginable to Elly — they were the best of the best and were designed specifically to help humans fly in this strange environment on the Moon. He grew jumpier as he started thinking about the hundreds of transistors and circuits that must be operating at full capacity. After all, in his time running factories and radio repair stores, he had seen hundreds, if not thousands, of blown fuses, corroded connections, and faulty components.
Knowing the nature of machines, he couldn’t help but be tense. He grabbed his glass of water, the ice cubes mostly melted away by now, and took another sip, hoping for the best. As nervous as he was, the aspiring pilot and adventurer was still alive in Elly. This side of him wasn’t nervous at all, but actually jealous. What did it feel like to see the Moon’s surface coming increasingly closer to you? How did it feel to fly with no atmosphere? With no resistance, did it feel like the spacecraft wanted to drop like a stone? Could the astronauts feel the thrust of the descent engine? Every push of the navigation thrusters? What would they do if the main descent engine failed? The Lunar Module was like a single engine aircraft, with no backup plan if things went wrong. If an airplane experiences engine failure on Earth, pilots can glide to a safe landing thanks to atmospheric lift. But the moon has no atmosphere — if the engine failed, the Lunar Module would immediately plummet to the surface and crash.
Just as he continued to think about all of the possible electrical risks, mechanical risks, and flight risks, Elly heard Neil Armstrong interrupt a brief period of silence: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
They had done it. Finally able to relax, he leaned back into the couch and smiled. Forty-one years old, father of three, and a citizen of the world, Elly Gotz had one simple reaction: “Wow, what a moment!” Two astronauts had piloted a spacecraft to the surface of the Moon while he listened live back on Earth. It was about 4:15 in the afternoon. The CBC newscaster informed the audience that it would be another few hours until Neil and Buzz exited the Lunar Module to explore the surface. Elly watched for a few minutes more, then finished his water, which had no ice cubes remaining, and went back upstairs. He’d initially had planned to do a few more things around the yard, but admitted defeat when he realized he was simply too excited. It was a beautiful day, and the most exciting thing he had ever seen on TV had just happened. The kitchen upstairs was lit up with sunlight, the shine reflecting Elly’s mood perfectly.
Deciding he was indeed far too excited to go pull weeds from the garden or take on any other type of chore, he instead picked up the phone and started calling family members. He was ecstatic, but had no one to talk to in an empty house. He absolutely had to talk to somebody about what had just happened. He wanted to share what he had just seen, to talk about how amazing it was, and, ever the engineer, to make sure people appreciated the magnificence of the machinery.
Elly had spent years fixing radios and all sorts of other electronic devices. While radios are complex machines, they were nothing compared to what NASA had built to go to the Moon. Maybe, he thought, people who aren’t engineers can’t fully appreciate the technological immensity of what NASA engineers accomplished today. A machine can be very stubborn when it doesn’t want to work. Did people who didn’t work with machines understand how incredible it was to use them to land on the Moon? It takes great engineers to design a machine that absolutely cannot fail during its one and only opportunity to work.
Calling his friends and family, his voice was beaming with pride and excitement. Elly made sure to emphasize the amazing nature of the landing, insisting people appreciate the mastery of machines that NASA had just shown. For the next few hours he regaled as many people as he could over the phone with everything he knew about the space program (and engineering). As evening approached, it was starting to cool off outside. The humidity was relenting too, at least a bit, and the sun was past the horizon. Only a slight bit of light still pierced the air. It was setting up to be a calm, warm, summer night.
Having made his last phone call, Elly got ready to watch more of the mission. He went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, pour another glass of water, and look through the pantry for some snacks to satisfy his sweet tooth. Sadly, most of the good stuff had been packed up with the kids to go to the cottage. But, he finally spotted potato chips and chocolates — the perfect snack foods to relax downstairs with and watch history be made.
With no wind or rain outside, the streets were quiet on this Sunday night. The only sound in the house came from the TV. Elly wondered: was everyone else inside doing the same thing he was? He could see the Moon through the short basement windows above him. It wasn’t a Full Moon, barely at Third Quarter phase, but it seemed particularly bright. Inside, he sat on the couch and ate his sandwich as he listened to the newscasters of the CBC discuss what kind of preparations the astronauts were undertaking. By now it was nearly eleven o’clock at night.
Then, an image came on the TV. It was the side of the lunar lander. Elly had seen the craft dozens of times in the newspaper and during the news coverage of the Apollo 9 and 10 missions. But now it was sitting on the ground, a vantage point of the craft he hadn’t seen before. That was because this was a live feed of the lunar module on the surface of the Moon. The news anchor confirmed what he was seeing. A small camera connected to a long arm on the side of the lander had been extended and turned on. The Lunar Module wasn’t alone. Viewers could see Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong holding onto the ladder along the side of the spacecraft, ready to step down at any moment. The image wasn’t very good, even for TV standards at the time — it was black and white and seemed faint. But that didn’t matter.
Live video from the Moon was beaming into Elly’s basement. That feat alone, being able to transmit a live signal to Earth from the surface of the Moon, was surreal in the moment. After a brief conversation between Armstrong and Houston, which viewers were allowed to listen in on, the young man from Ohio, two years younger than Elly, began making his way further down the lander. Armstrong was stepping feetfirst down the ladder that connected the Lunar Module crew cabin to the ground. He even tested being able to jump back up the ladder.
Ever the engineer, Elly was worrying again. There he sat in the basement of his family home, surrounded by pictures of his loved ones on the walls and the serene silence of the suburban neighborhood outside. He was nearly 400,000 kilometers away from these men on the Moon. They had traveled there on the biggest rocket ever built, and landed using the most advanced computers ever created. All of it had gone according to plan, but Elly worried about one last part.
While living in South Africa, he operated a sound recording studio. He knew the task of sending a television transmission from the moon must have been incredibly complex. The transistors, the power source for the reception dishes, the wiring in the camera…his mind never left engineer mode. What a terrible shame it would be if they went all the way there, accomplished this incredible feat, and nobody back on Earth got to see it because of a blown fuse.
All these worries immediately washed away as Elly saw that the television feed only needed to hold on for a few seconds more. “I’m going to step off the LEM now.” Armstrong was standing on the base of one of the Lunar Module’s feet and was about to put the first human footprint on another world.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Looking at a person standing on the Moon, he thought: “Beautiful.” That is all Elly thought. “Beautiful.” For Elly, Armstrong’s words could not have been more perfect. This was an accomplishment for all humankind. We had done it. We had set a seemingly impossible goal, filled with obstacles of every kind, and we had succeeded. There were scientific questions about the lunar environment, engineering challenges around how to build the machines, and innumerable human factors to overcome. Who could fly these machines? Was it worth the risk? Could three astronauts function properly for the duration of the mission? All of these challenges — scientific, engineering, and human — didn’t matter now to Elly or anyone else.
Humanity had just made one giant leap.
The atmosphere the next day on the floor of Elly’s plastics factory felt like he was back on campus with his university friends. Everyone was talking about what had happened on TV the night before. Elly in particular was singing the praises of NASA all over again and talking to everyone about the amazing event. He went around asking every worker in the building if they had seen it.
One employee replied, “Did I see what?”
“They went to the Moon in a giant rocket!” Elly responded in shock.
Apparently he still had some people to convert when it came to admiring spaceflight. Of course, when Elly’s family returned from the cottage, he had a new audience to tell all about NASA’s Moon landing. They were used to it by now. When he was reading the newspaper every morning, he would often talk at length about the incredible machinery involved in landing on the Moon. And as a Holocaust survivor, he was also always quick to point out to his wife any time the news mentioned chief US rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, whom the American government had snapped up from Germany after the war.
“Look! The Nazis terrorized poor London for years with their rockets, now von Braun is helping the Americans go to the moon!”
Elly knew all too well that von Braun had used slave labor at concentration camps to build his rockets during the war; von Braun was the only part of the Space Race he didn’t like reading about.
Over time, Elly’s family would grow accustomed to his fascination with machines and flight. They had to. Fulfilling a childhood dream, he eventually got his pilot’s license and his own plane. He flew his family around in a small single-engine airplane, taking them on vacations across Canada and the United States. While flying a small aircraft is always dangerous, the family trusted Elly. They knew he thought through every single risk and was prepared to deal with each one, mechanical or human. Calculating risk and knowing the details of his machines were things Elly always took seriously. His understanding of both risk and machines certainly paid off. On one particular family vacation to the east coast of Canada, he landed with his family in Moncton, New Brunswick, to spend the day. After walking through the streets and sightseeing, he prepared to fly the family to the next stop for the night. There was a chance for severe weather, but it wasn’t meant to arrive for several hours, and Elly figured he could fly low to avoid it in the unlikely event that the storm moved in earlier than forecasted.
Shortly after taking off from Moncton airport, Elly couldn’t see a thing. Rain covered his windshield. The clouds had moved in rapidly — three hours earlier than forecasted. The conditions were what pilots called instrument weather, where you fly entirely based on the readouts of the plane’s instruments. Unfortunately, Elly didn’t have an instrument license, and his family was onboard. It was a horrifying scenario.
But Elly kept calm. He knew his plane, and he knew he couldn’t panic. He thought to himself, if you panic now, you’re all dead.
Elly contacted the Moncton airport tower by radio and requested help to return to the runway. Air traffic control directed him to turn a precise number of degrees using his compass. Elly had no problem with the directions, he was intimately familiar with his airplane’s instruments. From there they coached him to about 3,000 feet altitude and told him to fly level. He was only to descend when they said so. But even at that altitude, he still couldn’t see a thing. After several minutes of nerve-racking flight through dense clouds and rain, he heard the voice over the radio tell him to begin to descend at a particular rate. As he emerged beneath the blanket of clouds, through the continuing rain on the windshield, he could see the runway lights. He was right on track for a perfect landing.
From this experience, Elly learned that he didn’t panic in dangerous situations. He would have made a fine astronaut. With some encouragement from Esme, Elly decided to get his instrument rating.
Even fifty years later, Elly still sometimes looks up at the Moon and smiles, thinking, We’ve been up there! In so many ways, his life has paralleled the space age. When he was born, the earliest liquid fuel rockets — tiny versions of what would one day go to the Moon — were just being invented. When he graduated from university, he was learning about the first rockets to fly beyond Earth’s atmosphere. When he moved to Canada, humans were landing on the Moon. And as he celebrated his ninetieth birthday, he was reading online articles about amazing little rovers on the surface of Mars. He even got a little bit closer to becoming an astronaut when, at the age of ninety, he jumped out of an airplane (with a parachute) to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada, his adopted home. Falling through the sky, he proved you’re never too old to explore and take risks.
Elly has seen the worst of humanity, and, in some ways, the best. He is constantly reminded of how ingenious humanity can be: landing rovers on Mars, sending spacecraft to Pluto, and orbiting the Earth every day in the International Space Station — all wonders of human ingenuity. However, Elly also reminds himself, and others, how stupid we can be when we focus on the wrong things. When we choose the wrong emotions to motivate us. When we hate. Elly knows firsthand how hate drives so many of our bad decisions. Hate blinds us. Hate makes us stupid. No one has ever accomplished important things fueled by hate. No one has landed a rover on Mars fueled by hate. No one has lived in space for a year fueled by hate. Hate is worthless. All the good of humankind, all the accomplishments of science and engineering throughout history, came from people who turned away from animosity.
When Elly Gotz saw humans walk on the Moon, it was about more than the technology. It was about what getting there meant to humanity. Two decades after the First World War, humanity started a second. But two decades after the Second World War, there was no third. Despite the fact that the use of weapons and technologies from World War II could have easily led to another horrendous global conflict. Thankfully, instead of instruments of war, humanity used the rockets and computers of World War II to orbit the Earth and land on the Moon. Humanity had taken its ingenuity and moved in a better direction.
Because of this, twenty-four years after lying full of hate in a hospital bed, Elly saw humanity walk on the Moon. As he did so, he was sitting in a beautiful home filled with pictures of his loved ones, a picture-perfect life built through love. For Elly, the moon landing will always represent what happens when you turn away from hate. He knows better than anyone that only when you give up hate can you truly start to live.