My best friend Tom and I were big space program fans back in the day, but in truth most Americans were as well. We were just more obsessed about it than most. The space program was a BFD in the 1960s, and our nation’s progress in space went at an extremely accelerated rate. That can happen when the nation focuses on a problem and it was a good problem to have. It made us feel better about not having put the first satellite or astronaut into space. Unlike the unwinnable war in Vietnam it didn’t involve killing anyone. Rather, it stirred our imaginations and better natures. We felt so lucky to be alive when an event of such importance was happening. Even better, we could watch grainy images of the events at time from 230,000 miles away, the general distance between the earth and moon, with about a second and a half delay.
I was twelve years old at the time, and these events came in rapid succession. Just eight months earlier, Apollo 8 had orbited the moon and safely returned, our first manned journey beyond earth orbit. That too was incredibly dangerous and daring. Apollo 9 tested the lunar module from the safety of an earth orbit, minus the actual landing of course. Apollo 10, less than two months before Apollo 11’s landing, did the same a few miles above the moon’s surface. Even so, Apollo 11 felt daring and in truth it was very dangerous. NASA generally did things cautiously, but arguably it should have been more cautious. The late President Kennedy had challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before 1970, so the pressure was on.
It would take moving to Florida some years later to see an actual rocket launch. I saw two of them: the last Saturn V launch which catapulted Skylab into orbit from about nine miles away, and a Saturn 1B launch that was used for a joint docking exercise between the USA and the Soviet Union from about three miles away (we got a special pass). For one of them my friend Tom made the journey from New York to see it with me. But by 1972 the nation lost interest. Apollo 11’s landing was a great climax. Apollo 13’s misfortune made for a great national story, but generally the nation quickly moved on after Apollo 11, which was a shame because each subsequent mission got more interesting and more challenging.
So my perspective of the landing came from a lot of obsessive reading about the space program and a lot of watching TV. One of the few decisions we had back then was which network to watch it on. We chose CBS because then CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was equally obsessed by the space program. Astronaut Wally Schirra, who managed to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, was Walt’s right hand guy giving an astronaut’s perspective. That was a hard combination to beat. Aside from the many, many commercials from Tang and the International Paper Company on CBS, there was some cheesy CBS animation depicting events that could not be televised. CBS’s animation showed the lunar module landing some thirty seconds before when it actually did. There was no way to slow it down with the animation of the time.
There was that and the static-filled conversations between astronauts in Eagle (the lunar module), Columbia (the command module) and Mission Control in Houston, much of it technical and hard to decipher. The landing happened in the afternoon for us on the east coast. The first moonwalk though was the even more exciting event, which happened sometime around midnight. We got special parental dispensation to stay up late, but Aldrin wasn’t even on the surface before I was shuffled off to bed. The images from the lunar surface were in black and white, and were later broadcast in color in later missions. Buzz Aldrin noted the “magnificent desolation” of the moon and it sure seemed that way to us here on earth. It was a time of great national pride and unity, which is pretty much the antithesis of what we have now. Fifty years later, our country looks like a shell of what it was in 1969, even factoring in the divisive Vietnam War and racial strife that also characterized the 1960s.
I’ll certainly be dead 50 years from now, but there’s probably an even chance I’ll be alive to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing. Two of the Apollo 11 astronauts are still with us (Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins), but we lost Neil Armstrong in 2013. Both Michael and Buzz look ancient as they are both age 89 at the moment. But both still have their wits about them. I’m glad they are still around to share their memories.
Fifty years later, we can unquestionably say that this was the biggest event in the history of the human race, at least so far. Even a manned landing on Mars will feel anticlimactic. Should we ever make it as as a race to a planet around another solar system, that will be perhaps a greater event. If it ever happens though, it’s unlikely anyone who watched the crew depart will be around to celebrate.