By Betty Gordon
© 2019 text and photos, except where noted. All rights reserved.
At a little before 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on July 20, 1969, I was crouched on the carpeting only a few feet from the television screen in my parents’ wood-paneled den in south Florida, peering intently at a somewhat fuzzy black-and-white image.
A figure in a bulky spacesuit was slowly easing himself backward, rung by rung, down the lunar module ladder. Radio transmissions between American astronaut Neil Armstrong and Mission Control in Houston provided a movement-by-movement account.
It was astonishing — and wildly exciting — to be able to see this picture from more than 240,000 miles away. That the clarity was somewhat compromised didn’t matter a bit.
Several hours after the Eagle landed at Tranquility Base on the moon, it was time for Armstrong, a 38-year-old Ohio native — and soon to follow 39-year-old New Jersey-born Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin — to become the first man to set foot on a celestial body other than the planet Earth.
In NASA time, it was four days, 13 hours, 24 minutes and 20 seconds into the Apollo 11 mission, the 21st manned flight in the history of the American space program.
In Earth time it was 10:56:15 p.m., a Sunday.
Commander Armstrong extended his left booted foot, stepped off the LM (pronounced “lem”) onto the powdery surface and uttered these concise, memorable words:
“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” an audience of millions around the world heard, likewise engrossed in front of a TV or listening on the radio.
(The “a” in the statement was hard to make out then and it’s still unintelligible now on tape, but Armstrong insists in the book “First Man” by James Hansen that he intended to include the “a.”)
It was a universal moment, seared into our collective consciousness.
About 16 minutes later, LM pilot Aldrin likewise exited the Eagle and negotiated the ladder while Armstrong captured the moments for posterity with a Hasselblad 70-mm camera.
Aldrin’s description of the lunar landscape: “Magnificent desolation,” a phrase he also used as the title for his 2009 autobiography.
Armstrong and Aldrin’s time on the surface was limited to two hours and 40 minutes. They collected nearly 48 pounds worth of rocks and soil samples, conducted six experiments (or set up equipment to transmit data back to Earth), planted a partially unfurled American flag, tested their balance and gait in the moon’s one-sixth gravity, took a call from President Richard Nixon and snapped a lot of color photos.
(A later controversy criticized Aldrin because he is the figure in almost all of the photos. His logical defense was that Armstrong took most of the pictures. What came to be called the “visor shot,” where Armstrong and the LM are reflected in Aldrin’s helmet, is probably the most well-known of the Apollo 11 photos.)
The feel-good moon mission was a startling contrast to a year otherwise teeming with civil unrest, with a brief interlude to celebrate peace and music.
Just weeks before the astronauts lifted off, the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City, six days of violent protests, marked a major turning point in the movement for gay civil rights.
Demonstrations against the Vietnam War intensified across the United States.
Less than a month after the astronauts returned to Earth, more than 400,000 fans trekked to a dairy farm field in upstate New York for three days of now-legendary vocal and instrumental performances at Woodstock.
And in California, the vicious murder spree of Charles Manson and his followers would soon dominate national headlines in August — and for years to come.
But for those glorious day in July 1969, it was all about flying to the moon, and returning safely to Earth, as President John F. Kennedy had challenged America to do in a speech in 1961.
Collectors’ editions of books about Apollo 11 were soon to hit store shelves. Newspapers and magazines turned out commemorative editions. I saved the 28-page section produced by the Miami Herald on July 25, 1969.
The front page is a blurry screen-grab photo of both astronauts on the surface. The headline: “We Came in Peace For All Mankind,” one of the phrases on the plaque that the astronauts left on the moon.
The section covered the mission from the liftoff of the Saturn V rocket from launchpad 39A at Cape Kennedy in Florida, profiled the astronauts (Michael Collins, the third member of the crew, was the pilot of the command module Columbia) and their families, included a diagram of the two-tiered Eagle, delved into the history of rocketry from American Robert Goddard to German immigrant Wernher von Braun, listed all the Russian and American astronauts and their crafts who had been to space, and noted the deaths of two Russian cosmonauts and eight Americans astronauts in the pre-Apollo 11 days.
Articles also considered the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, highlighted exploits of earlier explorers (Columbus’ name was frequently mentioned), described Apollo 11’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and recovery at sea, detailed the astronauts’ slated 17-day quarantine, previewed the Apollo 12 moon mission scheduled for November 1969, questioned “the gap between morals and science,” and dangled the idea of an expedition to Mars, to cost an estimated $100 billion and targeting a time frame of 1982-1988.
The advertisements were a mix of flag-waving congratulations, some to-be-expected moon-centric puns and companies noting their contributions to the space program.
The ad from Burdines, a department store (later bought out by Macy’s), from the top read: Our Hat’s Off — [Uncle Sam’s red, white and blue top hat], followed by a moon with a half-smile, and pictures of Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins (in that order in a horizontal column). The copy said: “Hip, hip hooray for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins! They put a new smile on the man in the moon and proved once again when something needs doing, Uncle Sam does it.”
A full-page ad from the airline Pan Am (which ceased operation in December 1991) teased civilians yearning to go into space: “To anyone who ever wished on the moon: sign up here.” A credit-card sized illustration featured two spacesuit-clad men on the moon, with the Earth in the background. The card’s text: “Know Ye by These Presents that Larry Anderson has become a certified member of Pan Am’s ‘First Moon Flights Club.’ ” In the lower right corner was the signature of James Montgomery, vice president of sales.
The copy went on to say that the airline “really” had a “waiting list for the moon,” touted its ties as a contractor to the U.S. Air Force and the space program, noted that its fleet flew to 119 destinations, and in the winter of 1969, would be flying the “world’s first Boeing 747s.”
Other ads were a mix of local (banks, lawn mower sales) and national companies (IBM, Volkswagen, appliance maker Whirlpool “That Wasn’t Green Cheese They Were Eating on the Moon!).
Print media wasn’t the only business getting in on the memorabilia bonanza. Products from dozens of manufacturers ran the gamut from kitchenware (glasses and pitchers) to commemorative coins. Kids had their choice of games and puzzles, plastic and paper models of the Saturn V, the Columbia and the Eagle; spaceman figures; and even Snoopy in a plastic bubble helmet. For stamp enthusiasts, there were first-day covers for purchase. One of the odder collectibles was a Wedgwood blue-and-white Jasperware plate with the two moon men and the LM in the center.
The astronauts were released from quarantine on August 10. They returned to their Houston homes, but not for long. America had some celebrating to do, and the astronauts and their families were the objects of an outpouring of pride and affection from coast to coast.
In one marathon day, August 13 (a Wednesday), there were parades and ceremonies in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. (A 45-day, 23-nation goodwill tour by the astronauts and their wives, with various agencies providing support staff, kicked off September 29 from Houston.)
I was lucky enough to be in New York and see at least part of that parade — along with an estimated 4 million others.
The streets were packed with people, and if I recall correctly, I was hanging out of a bathroom window several stories up in a department store. I took photos — probably with a Kodak Instamatic — but I was so far away, that the printed image wasn’t sharp.
The lead open convertible carried the smiling and waving heroes: Aldrin on the left, Collins in the middle and Armstrong on the right.
Their car was followed by a security car, then one with the astronauts’ wives, another security car, then a car with the astronauts children (three each Aldrins and Collinses, two Armstrongs).
Tons of confetti, streamers and ticker tape — and some whole stacks of IBM punch cards that fell like bricks, Armstrong recalled — were cast down from the skyscrapers lining the parade route through the Financial District, Broadway and Park Avenue, 42nd Street and to the United Nations (46th Street and First Avenue).
In my scrapbook, I still have the crinkled blue streamers and bits of ticker tape from the parade.
Today, the 50th anniversary of the July 16 launch, and those pioneering steps on the moon, is fast approaching.
Beginning 9 p.m. Monday (July 8), PBS will show over three nights “Chasing the Moon,” a documentary detailing the science, politics and personal sacrifices that went into the manned space program.
Nine days later, at 9 p.m. July 17, it will air “8 Days: To the Moon and Back,” featuring formerly classified audio from Apollo 11, and a retelling of the mission.
At the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Armstrong’s newly conserved spacesuit will go back on display July 16. You can see it online now at https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/neil-armstrong-apollo-11-spacesuit. Pay particular attention to the left gauntlet. It displays a list of tasks Armstrong was to perform on the moon. (Aldrin’s left glove similarly catalogued his duties.)
The command module Columbia is also at the museum, though not currently on display. Collins wrote on its interior: “The Best Ship to Come Down the Line. God Bless Her.” See 45 photos online at https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/command-module-apollo-11.
Special programs are scheduled for July 19 and 20 at the museum. In fact, many facilities around the country are celebrating the anniversary, including the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the meticulously restored Mission Control, nearly exact to the last paper cup and pencil, was unveiled June 28.
For a lengthy list of anniversary-related (and beyond) events, see NASA’s website: https://www.nasa.gov/specials/apollo50th/events.html.
The Apollo 11 mission was the last for the three astronauts. They went their separate ways, pursuing other projects.
Armstrong died on August 25, 2012, of complications from heart surgery. He was 82. Though he carried out a space-centric, busy post-NASA schedule over the decades, it was never enough for some critics, who went so far as to call him a recluse. “First man on the moon” was not a title he coveted, and carrying it was often a burden. Though he understood the continuing interest in him, he would have preferred far less attention.
He taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati for eight years, until 1980. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in January 1986, he joined the Presidential Commission convened to discover the cause of the disaster, which took the lives of six astronauts and New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe.
Aldrin, 89, who has written openly about his post-moon mission battle with depression and alcoholism, continues to advocate for an expedition to Mars, presenting ideas and innovations in continuing pursuit of the goal. Command module pilot Collins said in a 2016 interview with the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine that Aldrin “eats, lives and breathes space.”
Of the three, Aldrin has capitalized the most on his celebrity status. He’s also infamous for having punched a persistent (and misguided) camera-toting man who wanted Aldrin to swear on a Bible that the landing was a hoax. (The same person harassed Armstrong at a company’s annual meeting in New York in 2001 and at his home in Ohio.)
After leaving NASA, Collins briefly worked at the State Department, before joining the Smithsonian, where as director he shepherded the construction of the Air and Space Museum building on the Mall (it opened in July 1976). He retired in 1982 from the U.S. Air Force Reserve with the rank of major general.
He’s also written several books, including “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys.” Now 88, he, too, supports a Mars mission, though he said in the Air & Space magazine interview that it should be an international effort.