Apollo 11: 1969 - 2019 Fifty Year Anniversary of the Moon Landing
Summer of '69
July of 1969 was a year to remember, and remember it we should this summer. It has been fifty years, a half a century since the country tuned in daily to watch and listen to the crew of Apollo 11 in their attempt to become the first men to set foot on another celestial body, one other than our own Earth. Fifty years. As we count down the days until that historic anniversary, I would like to spend a few moments recalling what I thought and felt about that time frame.
I had just finished the fourth grade and we had moved into our first home. Up until that summer we had been a family which rented houses, with the house we were moving from a two bedroom house for a family of five. I had two younger sisters who shared one bedroom, my parents the other. Even though I was the oldest, I was relegated to a room which sat off the front porch and had been a hair salon prior to our moving in. There was a boarded over location which had held a wash basin and pipes, even a spot on the floor that had been where the chair had sat. There were two ways into the room, off the porch and through my parents room. No air conditioning, no fans in summer, no heat in winter. It was anything but my ideal of a room for a boy my age. So when we moved into a new home and I finally got my own room again I was ecstatic.
But as we had moved during the summer I had no chance to meet kids my age in school, so I spent a lot of time in my back yard or in the house watching TV. When the moon mission began to dominate the airwaves in July, I spent virtually every minute I could watching to see what was happening.
So what was being shown on TV? For those of you who weren't there at the time, you might be surprised to hear that most of what we saw were commentaries, reports and simulations. We would wait impatiently for those moments when a new simulation came on the screen, one showing the lunar module in drawing form streaking through space. For me, my imagination ran wild. When the simulation would end and the report finish, I would run outside (day or evening) and open the trunk of my family's 1966 Chevy Impala, crawl inside and lay on my back with my feet hanging over the lip of the trunk and pretend I was an astronaut. Reaching up to touch the inside of the trunk I would pretend to flip switches and soar through outer space en route to the moon alongside of those brave astronauts inside their own space capsule.
There was so little actual video of the mission that we had to use our imagination. And unlike today, where the media is involved seemingly constantly and video abounds the media only reported what NASA gave them, so there was not nearly so much available to us the viewers; there were a lot of repeated statements and cartoonish artists conception drawings of what was taking place far from Earth.
But when the landing actually took place there was pandemonium in my mind. We had landed on the moon! The moon! Mankind was no longer stuck here on this one lonely planet in the heavens.
"Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."
When those words came through our TV speakers I went crazy. Quietly, of course. My parents would not allow me to explode with noise even if this was a historic moment. Maintain your calm and be quiet.
It was hard for me to do but I did manage, just. All the hours spent watching the other missions, the failures and the victories had led to this moment and I was just so incredibly happy.
When school started that fall, just a few weeks later, the topic on everyone's lips was the moon landing. As a new kid at a new school I was allowed to fit in just by talking about it with everyone else. Our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Webb spoke just as excitedly as we did about watching those grainy images from a quarter of a million miles away from where we sat, about those words spoken, the first ever spoken from another world.
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Today I recognize that we saw a small percentage of what was actually filmed then, as everything wasn't available to the media world at large nearly as much as it is today. And while we did own a color TV I don't remember the pictures being in color, only black and white. But it did not matter a bit: we were walking on the moon.
The rest of the mission remains a fuzzy memory. Some memories I do not know if they are real or something from watching TV in later years. I do remember how every mission ended with a splashdown and the astronauts ending up in an isolation room of some kind, a quarantine to prevent a space germ from tagging along with them and invading our planet. We just did not know anything about outer space then so NASA took every precaution it could think of to protect us and the astronauts from everything possible. While that might seem quaint or overprotective today, the reality was we were literally flying by the seat of our pants in outer space and did not know what to expect. It was another time entirely, one where we were innocent and trusting, believing we could do anything we wanted.
And, we did.
Today, as I sit watching the National Geographic Society channel which is marking the anniversary of the lunar landing, I am fascinated to learn things I never had a clue about concerning the Apollo missions. For example, did you know that the computer on board Apollo 11 failed and Neil Armstrong had to manually land the ship on the moon? To add pressure to Armstrong's task was the fact that the lander was running low on fuel and had literally seconds to find an appropriate landing location before being forced to abort the mission? Can you imagine what stress he must have been under? Out of fuel, computer malfunctioning, trying to land on the moon, a place no man had ever been before all while searching for a place to set down your craft?
Then, in order to take off, Buzz Aldrin had to use a pen, a pen(!) to operate a broken switch in order to fire the engine and lift off the moon to return home! President Nixon apparently had a speech ready to give if this solution didn't work and the astronauts became stranded on the moon, saying they had perished on the moon. It all seemed smooth as silk to a boy my age fifty years ago but I am learning it was anything but at the time.
Fifteen years later...
In 1984, I went to work for Eagle Picher, which was a company that designed and built batteries for military use. My first week there I was told I would be taught how to design a battery for the MX Peacekeeper missile by working alongside another engineer, then told to I was going to design a second one by myself for it. This was the first time in my life I used algebraic equations in real life (something I was sure I would never do). For some time, I thought all we did was military batteries until one day I went to the plant manager's office for a meeting. As I waited in the hallway, I chanced upon a glassed in case which had examples of past batteries and what they were used for. One I noticed was a battery for the Lunar Rover, while another was for the Apollo 13 capsule and lunar lander. I was amazed. After the meeting I spent some time speaking with the manager and found he was one of the engineers who had designed the batteries for the mission, then assisted during that flight's emergencies and getting the astronauts home safely. When the film Apollo 13 came out years later I was able to put faces with names and it made the entire sequence real in a way very few films ever are. I had spoken with one of the men associated with that heroic time in the space program of our country. I worked at the same location, same building where those batteries were designed and built, side by side with the men who were involved with the Apollo space program. I felt like a kid in a candy store.
So, what do you remember?
If you were alive during that exciting time, what are your memories? Did you watch breathlessly, in high anticipation of what was going on so far from our planet? Were you inspired, awe struck, excited, happy? Did you imagine yourself sitting alongside these brave men, floating in outer space approaching,landing then leaving our Moon? I would like to know your thoughts on those times, some of the most important in our country's history.
Or was it a waste of time, effort and money to you? Were we simply grandstanding, showing off? Was it all a dog and pony show, a manly exercise to show the Russians we were the better country? Again, tell me, I am truly interested.
Whatever your thoughts, I do believe we owe those men and women of the space program a huge thanks as we approach that historic time's anniversary.