Our black and white television crackled and sputtered as a static-like image came upon the screen. We held our breath and sat glued to history in the making. Here we were, on a hot summer day in July, the one place you would not typically catch any one of us in the middle of an afternoon on the farm.
July 20, 1969. I remember it like yesterday. Dad said we were going inside “to watch the moon landing.” In the middle of summer. In the middle of the week. In the middle of the day. Everything else in the world stopped that day as we watched the Apollo 11 crew.
One thing that can be said about my father…he knew when history was in the making, and he made sure we witnessed it, we understood the enormity of it, and that we respected it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this was a big deal. Our family, along with roughly 530 million other people (according to NASA), all watched the broadcast.
I was 8 years old when President Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25, 1961, and proposed that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”*
When Kennedy gave that speech, NASA had just begun the lunar effort, testing the Saturn C-1 engine for the first time. Earlier that same year, John Glenn had orbited the earth with the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7, a first for the United States.** That really brought the moon, in the estimation of my 8-year-old brain, that the moon WAS a little closer to me than I suspected. Maybe it WAS a possibility to land “a man” on it.
And so, I grew up with John Glenn as a hero. He had orbited the earth three times in February 1962. Indirectly, he had done all of this right before my very eyes. Before that, however, my childhood fantasy was a moon made of cheese that a cow had jumped over. Gradually, through my older brother’s occasional space and science magazines, I had envisioned myself, or at the very least, my older brother, on a rocket ship. After John Glenn, this “space thing” was starting to feel like a reality as I watched The Jetson’s animated cartoon on TV. THAT really got me thinking about living in space with Rosie the robot maid who would clean my house. Whatever the case might have been, and without my even realizing it, I was going to grow up with a moon that seemed within reach.
And then, it actually happened. During that summer of ‘69 I was 16 years old. I would bet that most readers remember exactly where they were when they witnessed the moon landing.
Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins were the astronauts of Apollo 11. I happen to have an old LIFE magazine in my collection (dated Aug. 22, 1969…40 cents).*** In the article “The astronauts – their own great stories” each crew member wrote about that “epic trip.” It’s very real, that yes, they had doubts when “the Eagle landed.” They talk about their flight simulators, instruments, panels and computers, mathematical equations, the moon landing location, memorized procedures and lunar dust. Armstrong said, “We were not concerned with safety, specifically, in these preparations (for the mission). We were concerned with mission success, with the accomplishment of what we set out to do. I felt a successful lunar landing might inspire men around the world to believe that impossible goals really are possible, that there really is hope for solutions to humanity’s problems.”
Buzz Aldrin wrote, “We didn’t know the president was going to telephone us on the moon until about 10 seconds before it happened. At that point the ground told us to move over in the vicinity of the flag. Then we heard the president. Being able to salute that flag was one of the more humble yet proud experiences I’ve ever had. To be able to look at that American flag and know how much so many people had put of themselves and their work into getting it where it was. We sensed – we really did – this almost mystical unification of all the people in the world at that moment.”
Collins wrote, “People keep asking me if I was lonely up there in Columbia (command module) while Neil and Buzz were on the moon. I wasn’t.” He also wrote, “I saw many things which human eyes are rarely privileged to see. But of all these it was the most wonderful thing to see Eagle coming up from the surface of the moon. I really got excited then because for the first time it was clear that they had done it. They had landed on the moon and got off again. The moon didn’t look sinister or forbidding…” He added, “It was also a happy situation, because here was the LM, getting larger and larger, brighter and shinier, and right smack dab where it should have been. All the tricky parts of the rendezvous were over, and now all we had to do was dock and get home.”
With that July 20, 1969, historic mission, our nation celebrated success. Neil Armstrong said it best, “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”
We have also witnessed tragedy and unbelievable sadness…the fire of 1967 that took the lives of three heroes, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, all killed on the launch pad when a flash fire engulfed their command module during a test for the first Apollo-Saturn mission. We held our breath during Apollo 13, when James Lovell said, “Houston, we have a problem.” We have witnessed the space shuttle tragedies. We know where we were “when it happened.”
There are innumerable books written about our nation’s space race, history and heroes. Many of us have seen a few movies based on history…Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, First Man. We are put right back to those particular times and those particular days.
And so, indirectly, we all have landed on the moon. “We choose to go to the moon. 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the bests of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”*
* en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_choose _to_go_to_the_Moon
***LIFE magazine, Vol. 67, No. 8, August 22, 1969: “The Astronauts – Their Own Great Stories”