(Pictured: Apollo 11 takes off, 50 years ago this morning.)
The earliest space mission I remember is the joint Gemini 6 and 7 flight in December 1965, which was followed by Gemini 8 in March of 1966; the latter was just after I turned six. Our family watched the launches and the splashdowns on TV whenever we could, and TVs were sometimes rolled into our classrooms to watch them in school. By the time Apollo 7 flew in October 1968, I knew that each of the succeeding missions was intended to push us closer to the moon. I remember seeing the Apollo 8 TV broadcast from moon orbit on Christmas Eve 1968, and I thrilled along with Apollo 9 and 10 in the spring of 1969. Apollo 11 launched on the morning of Wednesday, July 16, 1969. It was the middle of summer vacation, but I was not a late-riser, so I was up and tuned into Walter Cronkite long before the 8:32AM liftoff, 50 years ago this morning.
During the intervening three days, life went on for nine-year-old me. I probably had a Midget League baseball game or piano lessons to go to, and we would have have had the little swimming pool filled up in the dooryard. In mid-July, Dad would have been making hay, one of the few farm jobs Mother helped with, and so we may have been packed off to Grandma Vera’s or to friends in town for an afternoon or two so that work could be done.
On the day of the landing, Sunday, July 20, we went to a family gathering at a farm belonging to one of my mother’s cousins near Evansville, Wisconsin. It was a large gathering—not just my cousins but a bunch of second cousins too, maybe 50 people in all, for what must have been a spectacular potluck picnic. The weather was hot and sunny, and I remember us outside most of the afternoon. At some point, I came inside for a moment and saw the adults in the living room watching TV coverage of the landing, although I didn’t watch for long myself. On that day, playing outside took priority over everything else.
Because Dad had cows to milk, we would have left for home not long after the landing itself, which took place at 3:18 in our time zone. We watched TV from the moment we got home, waiting for Neil Armstrong to get out. Dad came in from the barn and Armstrong still hadn’t gotten out. Regular bedtime came and Armstrong still hadn’t gotten out. My youngest brother, who was not yet three, had gone to bed long before, but Mother and Dad decided to wake him up to watch with us, even though they knew that he probably wouldn’t remember what he was seeing.
Finally, at about 9:30, the astronauts opened the hatch. We watched the blurry picture and listened to the communications between the Earth and the moon for 10 minutes until Armstrong finally came out. It took him five minutes to reach the surface and deliver his famous line about one small step and a giant leap. We saw Buzz Aldrin come out, and we watched them plant the American flag. I believe we also heard President Nixon’s call to them. What I don’t remember is seeing them get back aboard the Lunar Module. It was midnight when they closed the hatch, and little boys, even those who were space-crazed, had surrendered to sleep by then.
If you visited my parents’ house today, I could show you the exact spot on the floor of the living room where I sat and watched it all happen.
During the 1960s race to the moon, NASA PR did a fair amount of mythmaking. Looking back 50 years, from the ruined world of 2019, the Apollo program really is almost mythological: the magnitude of the challenge, the commitment of the political leaders, the brains of the scientists, the ingenuity of the engineers, and the bravery of the astronauts. Such heroic exploits could happen only in Greek hero-tales or Viking sagas. They could come only from the pen of a poet.
If you remember Apollo 11, where were you, and how did you see it?
If you’d like to follow Apollo 11 this week as it happened 50 years ago, you have options. Apollo 11 in Real Time is a remarkable simulation; the Apollo 50th Twitter feed will keep your timeline stocked every hour of the day. If you would like to relive the flight in 90 minutes, CNN’s documentary Apollo 11, which played in theaters earlier this year, is riveting. The six-hour PBS documentary about the U.S. space program from the Mercury Seven to Apollo 11, Chasing the Moon, is worthwhile also.