July 20, 1969: the Apollo 11 moon landing. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of that event and I’m sure there will be some celebrations, but I thought about it the other night when I was staring up at that big Full Moon.
I remember the day and the live broadcast on CBS, with commentary by Walter Cronkite and former astronaut Wally Schirra and live audio from Mission Control in Houston and the Apollo 11 astronauts.
I went online and check my facts and put on The Police’s non-historical song “Walking on the Moon” in the background. “Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon…”
July 1969 was only about 8 years since the flight of the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and then the American Alan Shepard that started the “space race.” President Kennedy made the challenge to put a man on the moon before the decade was out.
NASA had made a rather bold decision to send Apollo 8 all the way to the moon using the new massive Saturn V rocket. But they didn’t land. On July 16, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center and 4 days later they would reach the Moon.
The Apollo 11 crew was Neil A. Armstrong, commander, Michael Collins, command module pilot and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. I felt bad for Collins at the time because he didn’t get to actually step on the Moon.
I recall sitting in my New Jersey living room staring at the small black and white TC with its “rabbit ear” antenna that was pulling in a signal from CBS News in New York City, but I felt like it was getting a signal from the Moon.
I was 15. It was an eventful summer: Woodstock, the Manson murders, the Stonewall riots. We were a year out from the “Summer of Love.” I had been a year since my father had died.
In the summer of 1969, I was listening to my two new albums: The Who’s double album Tommy which launched a bunch of concept albums, and The Beatles’ Get Back which was a sad release because we knew The Beatles were done as a group. “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in” by the Fifth Dimension was a pop hit version of the song from the radical Broadway musical Hair.
I finally got to see the film Midnight Cowboy which made a big impression on me. John Schlesinger’s film starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman was released with the dreaded X rating. I had to wait until there was a lazy teenager in the local theater box office who didn’t care if I bought a ticket. That year i also saw two other films that influenced me in very different ways: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider.
I know there are people who still say that the moon landing was faked. I suspect some of that silliness comes from the fact that CBS News did use animation and simulations in their coverage and labeled them as such. No one could transmit live video footage from the moon, so CBS made their own animations and a mockup model so viewers could see something and get an idea of what was happening on the moon.
There is also the actual film footage of the lunar landing and walk from the 16mm film cameras mounted on the module that landed on the Moon and from the window video camera onboard Apollo 11’s Lunar Module “Eagle.” But much of that footage didn’t get to us until they returned to Earth.
It as a tense program to watch. Neil Armstrong’s heart rate peaked at 150 beats per minute at landing, as compared to his resting heart rate of 60 bpm. At around 10 minutes to landing, the astronauts link to Mission Control cut out briefly, which was a terrifying moment.
It is worth noting for people who did not live through that era that there were also intermittent program alarms and error codes from the rather primitive computers on board and even back in Houston. The Lunar Module’s computer only had 4KB of memory. This article takes up more than 4KB. As is often pointed out, your smartphone is several thousand times more powerful than the spacecraft’s computer.
I added some video below and you can see the CBS animation showing the fake LM landing on the fake Moon before the actual landing. They didn’t actually sync up with the real landing, so when Buzz Aldrin says “engine stop,” the animation had already landed us based on the scheduled landing time.
Armstrong and Aldrin walked around and collected samples for two hours. They returned safely to Earth.
Twelve astronauts walked on the Moon’s surface. Six of those drove Lunar Roving Vehicles on the Moon. Three astronauts flew to the Moon twice, of which two landed. None landed on the Moon more than once. None were women, so there is still history to be made.
The nine Apollo missions to the Moon occurred between December 1968 and December 1972. Gene Cernan, commander of the last Apollo mission left the lunar surface with these words: “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace, and hope for all mankind.”
The “Summer of Love” was past. Vietnam was in at full power and my draft registration and draft lottery was a few years away. August 15-18 would be Woodstock. I started out for the festival but hit a ton of traffic and NY State Troopers who discouraged us and so we headed home. I wasn’t one of the nearly 400,000 people who showed up at a farm in Bethel, New York and saw Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and so many others.
The events of 1969 would help define that era.