“What was it like, seeing it unfold in real time?”
Deborah and Elizabeth both asked when they reached that point in their American History class. It was live coverage, from early morning to late at night, on all three networks, which was television then. ABC News had Jules Bergman, the quintessential science reporter. CBS News offered Walter Cronkite while NBC News went with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. All three networks had former astronauts who translated the technical detail into everyday language. They also described the kind of work performed during a mission, and the attention to detail.
On the day, the TV set came on early. Our color set, which was giving problems weeks earlier, was our window to the event. While most Sunday mornings were quiet, it was extra quiet on this morning. We guessed many other families were like ours, gathered in front of their sets, B&W and color, to watch. To have America to land on the moon first, it meant much. This was America at her best. This was derring-do to the nth degree no other nation could match. Yet, the risks involved were the unspoken truth. The most difficult part of the day would be the landing sequence.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they were our best. If anything went wrong along the way, you would want them at the controls. This is why they were chosen – cool under pressure, smart, always thinking. It was revealed later, the lunar module’s guidance computer was sending them to land in a field of boulders. To avoid the boulder strewn landing zone, Armstrong took manual control of the craft to find a clearing to land while Aldrin called out their speed and altitude. No one knew what was unfolding. With the lunar contact indicator lit in Mission Control, there was a lull in the communications. The half minute wait seemed like an eternity. Armstrong’s message brought great relief: “Houston, this is Tranquilty Base. The Eagle has landed.”
When our set was turned off early the next morning, around 2:00 am, we went to bed knowing all went well. The landing, the walk on the Moon. By the time we awoke, the Eagle was returning to rendezvous with the Columbia in orbit. It was the first manned launch from another world.
While it was a seminal moment in American history, no one thought how we would reflect on this day in the days ahead, let alone years later. At the time, 10 manned missions to the Moon were on the board. A couple years later, that number would be cut to seven manned missions. The spacecraft, hardware, and ancillary equipment for Apollo 18, 19, and 20 would be diverted for other missions (two Skylab missions and the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous). The NASA budget was cut in the failed belief we would not realize any return from the space program. Every bit of technology, from smartphones and tablets to desktop systems to IBM’s Watson AI has roots in space program technology. Every corner of science has benefitted from space program research.
On this 50th anniversary, talk has begun on returning to the Moon by 2024. Most interestingly, it is being led by an Administration that has a deep-seated mistrust of science and technology. It will require a budgetary investment and a political will to mount a return to the Moon, a space station in lunar orbit, a lunar base, manned missions to Mars and the outer planets (currently one-way trips). In the end, it may be all talk … and a dream.
And, most dreams are acted upon.
>Related: Thoughts from the 45th Anniversary of Apollo 11 can be found here.