Fifty years ago today I sat in front of our family television — our black and white television — watching Walter Cronkite of CBS News, with tears in his eyes, the most trusted man in America, narrate as the three members of Apollo 11, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, packed into the command module Columbia, first entered the orbit of the moon, our natural satellite. Then, two of those men, Armstrong and Aldrin, entered the lunar module Eagle, sealed all the hatches, disengaged from Columbia and began their descent to the lunar surface.
“Could they actually be landing on the moon?” Wow, this was big — big, big big. Science fiction authors had written novels that were about, or included landing on the moon. Arthur C. Clarke’s ground-breaking novel 2001 A Space Odyssey had several lunar stations and airline-type transportation to get back and forth from Earth to moon. It was published in 1968 and no doubt the space programs of the United States and the Soviet Union were big influences on Clarke’s descriptions of space travel and what it would take to establish a lunar colony.
On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy declared 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.”
That was very bodacious for a young president who had only been in office four months, who had people in both political parties fretting over the cost and effort. Then there was the fact the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in the space race. They put the first man-made satellite into orbit, put the first man into space.
Later in the year President Kennedy stood before an audience at Rice University and said, “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 best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
When I was even younger our schools set aside our usual studies to have us watch the Mercury rocket launches, and the broadcast from space. Oh how thrilling it was to see John Glenn orbiting the Earth! Can you imagine being an astronaut? A lot of kids did back in those days, just because we saw the Mercury 7, the first U.S. astronauts go into space and safely return.
We were thrilled once again when an astronaut, Ed White II, left the Gemini IV spaceship and, tethered to that craft, floated freely in space for 23 minutes.
About two years later White would die, in Apollo I, with commander Gus Grissom, one of the Mercury astronauts, and Roger B. Chaffee. After they were sealed into the capsule a fire broke out and killed them. What a blow to the space program, to America. They were the first astronauts to die, but they were not in space. That would come in the 1980’s when two space shuttle missions went bad.
But on July 20, 1969 we sat in front of our TVs and radios, watching and listening as Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong said. There were men on the moon! Approximately 3:17 on a Sunny, Sunday afternoon. No one was going outside to play, not in our neighborhood.
After nearly seven hours of preparation Armstrong opened the lunar module’s hatch, the Eagle’s front door, and took those steps to the moon’s surface. As he stepped off the module’s strut, Neil Armstrong uttered those now famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Apparently Armstrong meant to say “… for a man,” but missed that indefinite article. No matter. We didn’t notice. A human being was standing on the moon. After all the conjecture, all of the cheap talk, all the science fiction, the years of preparation, the failures and successes of the previous space flights, a man was on the moon.
Soon after Buzz Aldrin would become the second many to set foot on the moon. The two astronauts set about completing tasks, like planting a flag and collecting moon samples. They were in the Sea of Tranquility and from our vantage point it looked very tranquil. The sky was a darkness we had never witnessed before, contrasted with the lunar surface, the men and human equipment that was lit up from the sun.
While Armstrong and Aldrin were doing their moon thing, Michael Collins was circling the moon about 70 miles above. He would be out of contact with the world for about 48 minutes every time he passed on the dark side of the mon.
After just a few hours the Eagle returned to Columbia, the command module jettisoned the ascent stage into lunar orbit and the crew returned to Earth, to a hero’s welcome. We watched the splashdown and then as the astronauts and Columbia were landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet.
There has never been anything like the moon landings since; nothing nearly as newsworthy as the first moon landing. The attacks of 9/11 come close, bot Apollo 11 an event, a moment of celebration, not one of horror.,
Landing on the moon was our nation’s greatest achievement, mankind’s greatest accomplishment. The only event that could surpass the moon landing would be a landing on Mars. That will be more of an international endeavor, with the private sector taking much of the credit.
It would be surprising if it occurred in my lifetime, but if it does, I’ll be watching.
You can view new NASA lunar photos from all the Apollo missions here.
Top photo is of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle, from a panoramic view in the Flickr account
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the elected government officials and business were so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that.