By Dennis Minich
If one were to go through a timeline of the world and chart the most significant events: things like the Ice Age, the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, the discovery of America and the atomic bomb would all have dates noted. But somewhere on that line, there would be a special notation set aside for quite possibly man’s most incredible achievement. The date was July 20, 1969, and for the first time man was on the moon. For those of us who remember the event, it seems more than implausible the event took place 50 years ago. Like many major historical events, people who remember it remembers everything about it: where they were, what they were doing and who they were with.
I remember sitting in front of the good-old black and white TV for hours on the Sunday afternoon and watching as Walter Cronkite led the story as lunar module, named Eagle, separated from Apollo 11 and made its way to the surface of the moon. It landed sometime in the late afternoon and I remember hearing the famous words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” I know it was late afternoon because we still had time to get around and go to church on Sunday night. We rushed home and my father set up a camera on a tripod in front of the TV to get pictures as the first broadcast from the moon was beamed into homes on Earth. I remember Neil Armstrong and his misstated historical statement, where he meant to say “That’s one small step for a man.” I remember hearing how he phrased it and it seemed odd, but in the glory of the occasion, who cared.
For the better part of two hours we sat and watched as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin skipped along the moon’s surface. Much of it was about as exciting as watching paint dry, but that didn’t matter, man was on the moon. The event seemed so impossible and yet it was happening. I am not sure there has really ever been an event in history which stoked the joy and pride in so many people. This was not just an accomplishment for the United States, but an accomplishment for all mankind. There are lots of things which inspire certain groups or certain countries or even certain groups of countries, but rarely had anything happened which could inspire all of mankind.
What we at the time knew was this was a legacy to President Kennedy. He had promised during his administration in the early 1960s that man would land on the moon by the end of the decade. This was a time of competition with the Soviet Union so whether he really believed that promise or simply was serving as a cheerleader, following his death it became a priority for the American people. When you visit the National Air and Space Museum in Washing-ton, D.C., you can see the types of crafts which went into space. Chances are you have more room in the com-mode of a recreational vehicle than these astronauts had in their ships. The technology of the 1960s was no where near today, in fact the storage on the Apollo 11 computer was about 2K. Yet with that, we made it to the moon. It was a thing of dreams and history and pride.
But there were those not impressed. The Russians weren’t happy. We are told the Chinese were oblivious and many at home scoffed at the space race as a waste of money and time. As I mentioned, between the landing and the moon walk, my family went to church. I remember the sermon that evening very well as the minister went into a rant of how money which could have been used against poverty or for civil rights or for many other projects.
To say there was a congregation of people dumbstruck would be a gross under-statement. He was not the only one unimpressed. It was still the 60s, so anti-war protests and civil rights protests included what was deemed a waste of resources.
There were many arguments, but as time progressed, the realization of what had been accomplished sunk in. The cost had been high in both money and lives, astronauts had been lost and the potential for failure always remained. Mankind had achieved virtually the impossible. A few more trips and then the moon race was set aside.
Great accomplishments come along, many are noted, many are not. But it may be many years before mankind again witnesses such a feat as was accomplished by Apollo 11. I was 13 years old, but the details of the day are stamped in my mind. One of my first stops at the Smithsonian Institute was to stop and see moon rocks. I hope future generations have a chance to witness real, and happy history. A day to remember not for tragedy, but for celebration. When an event occurs, which excites and captures the imagination of all people, and allows us all to dream.
It is so hard to believe that was 50 years ago.