Forty-five years ago today July 20, 1969, the first human being, Neil Armstrong, stepped on to our moon uttering these words: “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (watch it here).
Indeed it was. I was 16 years old at the time and I witnessed that historical event. I’ll never forget it. I was down east on holidays at my grandparent’s farm with my Mom and Dad at the time. To this day, I can recall vividly sitting all by myself in the dark, watching it on the black and white TV. It was ironic that I was sitting there on an old fashioned farm that still had milking cows, chickens that laid the eggs, a garden full of the year’s potatoes and vegetables, and hay growing in the fields and yet, there I was, watching a man walk on the moon – live on TV!
Apollo 11 was the name of this space mission to the moon under the direction of NASA – the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In the sixties, there were a series of space flights beginning with a simple flight to the outer atmosphere of our planet Earth and culminating with several moon landings. We watched almost every space ship launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on the east coast of the U.S. on our TV in the living room. It was an exciting time for a kid and adult alike. Little did I know the politics involved in the space program. The United States and the Soviet Union were in a space race. Russia was the first country to put a man into space (up through the atmosphere and straight back to earth), much to the chagrin of the United States. This was a race like no other. These two countries were in the throws of a ‘cold war’ which basically meant that they didn’t trust each other, weren’t getting along, and were always trying to ‘one up’ each other. The late President Kennedy had promised in 1961 “that before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
The crew of Apollo 11 included Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon) and Michael Collins. The rocket that launched them into space on July 16, 1969 had three parts: 1. a Command Module (nicknamed Columbia from the Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon) with a cabin for the three astronauts, and the only part that landed back on Earth; 2. a Service Module, which supported the Command Module with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen, and water; and 3. a Lunar Module for landing on the Moon, nicknamed the “Eagle”. It took 3 days to get to the moon from the earth. The world held our collective breath when the Lunar Module, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board, was landing on the moon’s surface in an area named the ‘Sea of Tranquility’ – nothing like this had ever been attempted before in history. The entire world cheered when it was successful. These two men were on the moon for 21 1/2 hours and participated in a two and a half hour moon walk. It was breathtaking! They planted an American flag and left some momentoes like a piece of wood from the Wright brothers’ 1903 airplane’s left propeller, in addition to the footprints in the moon’s surface.
Again, when the Lunar Module blasted off from the moon, our global breath was held until they successfully docked with the Command Module circling the moon’s orbit with Michael Collins. They returned to Earth on July 24th in the Command Module which splashed down with parachutes in the Pacific Ocean. The astronauts where quarantined for 21 days in a retrofitted Airstream trailer, in case they brought back any ‘moon pathogens’.
Of course, the American’s held huge parades in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles for the Astronauts and celebrated their successful win of the space race with the Soviet Union.
But what I remember most is sitting alone in the dark at my Gramma’s, watching the moon walk late at night and looking out the window at the moon and the stars with incredible wonderment.