Gas cost about 62 cents per gallon back then. For most people, cutting edge electronic communications consisted of a rotary dial telephone tethered to the kitchen wall. Pocket calculators would not come along until the next decade. And regular folks were still wary of a new contraption called the microwave oven.
Yes, times were simpler back when human beings first walked on the moon for a worldwide television audience. It was a Sunday, 50 years ago today, that NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin began the history of man on the moon.
Just 66 years after the Wright brothers attained powered flight and eight years after Soviet Russian cosmonaut Yuri Garagin became the first person in outer space, America’s audacious space program orchestrated the first human footprint on a surface other than earth. Two great moments of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission were etched into the psyche of the human race on July 20, 1969, both of them narrated by Armstrong.
The first occurred at 4:17 p.m. Eastern Standard Daylight time, when Armstrong announced to a global television audience of more than half a billion people that the tiny lunar craft was indeed on the moon. “Tranquility base here,” he said calmly. “The Eagle has landed.”
Then, at 10:56 p.m., you could probably hear the proverbial pin drop around the world as he stepped away from the ladder of the tiny craft and kind of floated to the moon’s surface. “I’m stepping off the LM now,” Armstrong said, again calmly. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
And if you were a teenage girl watching at home in Atlanta with your dad, or a proud young soldier listening via radio from Vietnam, that moment is seared in your memory.
Leslie Faulkenberry’s love of flight and science was a shared trait in her family while growing up in Atlanta. So she and her father remained glued to the television, with dad providing a running narrative of the unprecedented human achievement.
“We were sitting around waiting for history to change,” said Faulkenberry, spokeswoman for the Glynn County Airport Commission and vice president of Faulkenberry Certain Advertising. “This was the turning point. I was in the living room with my father. We were waiting to see what Neil Armstrong would say when he came out of the space capsule. Right before, my father said, ‘Pay attention and remember — this is going to change history.’ I just remember what a thrill it was when he said it — one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Today Mike Browning is a Glynn County Commissioner. But in 1969, he was a 19-year-old Army soldier serving in Vietnam. He did not witness the monumental moment on television, but thank God for Armed Forces Radio Vietnam, Browning said.
“We were able to pick it up on the radio, we had a little transistor radio,” said Browning, a Glynn County native. “I do remember it clearly. I was so proud of our country, and I remember trying to explain it to our South Vietnamese friends. But it really kind of blew me away. I knew we could do it. I had faith in my country.”
So did President John F. Kennedy, who would not live to see his promise of America going to the moon fulfilled. It had been just a little over a year since Alan Shepard became the first U.S. astronaut to reach outer space in May of 1961. Gus Grissom, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter each followed with more substantial space flights that kept us neck and neck with the Soviets. Then Kennedy ramped up the Cold War-era space race by vowing in September of 1962 to put an American on the moon within the turbulent 1960s.
“We choose to go to the Moon!” Kennedy said in a speech at Rice University on Sept. 12 of that year. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills ... “
And resilience. NASA astronauts like John Glenn and Wally Schirra, and a funny powdery drink called Tang became household names as America’s space exploration progressed through the Mercury and Gemini programs.
The Apollo moon mission began tragically. During a training session on Jan. 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 craft erupted in flames on the launchpad, killing astronauts Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White.
The folks at NASA, its astronauts and support staff mourned their losses, triple-checked their math and went back to work on completing a successful moon shot. The trip to the moon would be made in patient increments, pushing the engineering, science and computer technology of the era to the limits.
“The computer technology of the average cellphone far excels the combined computing power of the two spacecraft that got humans to the moon and home safely,” science writer Elizabeth Howell wrote in 2014.
The crew of Apollo 8 were the first to reach the moon and make its orbit, circling the moon 10 times in December of 1968. Then, Apollo 9’s crew became the first to go up with the moon landing craft, which they took for a spin in earth’s orbit before successfully docking again with the main command module. The Apollo 10 mission, in May of 1969, has been described as a “dress rehearsal.” This time a crew took the moon landing craft from the command module and went to within 50 miles of the moon’s surface. They took photos of the proposed landing site on the Sea of Tranquility before docking back with the command module.
Then came July 16, 1969. Armstrong, Aldrin and fellow astronaut Mike Collins sat in the space capsule atop the towering Saturn V rocket at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Quite simply, the Saturn V was a beast — a three-stage rocket designed for the express purpose of hurling human beings out of earth’s orbit and onto a course for the moon. The Saturn V stood 363 feet high, taller than the Statue of Liberty. NASA experts successfully tested the powerful Saturn V on the unmanned Apollo 4 and Apollo 6 missions before sparking it under the human crew of Apollo 8 for the first manned trip into the moon’s orbit. Saturn V is the still the biggest, baddest, most powerful rocket ever built.
Liftoff began at 9:32 a.m. EST. The Saturn V’s 7.5 million pounds of thrust put Apollo 11 into earth orbit at about 116 miles up within 12 minutes. The crew went around the earth one and a half times before the Saturn V kicked in its third and final stage, the “translunar injection” that set them on course for the moon.
“This Saturn gave us a magnificent ride,” Armstrong said of the mission’s initial stages, speaking to mission control — and the world. “It was beautiful.”
It took Apollo three days to cover the 234,000 miles between us and the moon and arrive in lunar orbit. A day later, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed into lunar module Eagle, leaving Collins behind in the command module, known as Columbia.
On the way to the moon’s surface, Armstrong noticed the Eagle’s autopilot was taking them down into the rocky West Crater. So he took the controls, steering it manually to a safe landing in the Sea of Tranquility. The engineers and scientists back at mission control in Houston went nuts with applause after Armstrong’s famous announcement that the Eagle had landed.
“You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we’re breathing again,” one controller tells the crew.
Armstrong, who died in August of 2012, would always insist that he was misquoted after that most historic of moments. What he actually said was, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” At any rate, some 650 million people watched the famous moment when human history broke the bonds of earth.
Aldrin joined him at 11:11 p.m. EST, becoming the second human ever to set foot on unearthly terrain. The grainy black-and-white images were captured on film for all the world to see.
Sea Island resident Dr. Peter Murphy was 18 that night, and a summer camp counselor up in Holderness, New Hampshire. Televisions were comparatively crude affairs back then, with only three hand-cranked channels and a pair of funky adjustable antenna on top. “I was with the counselors in the main cabin watching a black and white TV with rabbit ears,” said Murphy, a Glynn County Commissioner. “I remember Neil Armstrong coming out — one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Then I headed off to bed. I had to get up early the next day.”
Aldrin and Armstrong spent a total of 21 hours and 36 minutes walking on the moon. In addition to getting photos, they collected about 50 pounds of rock and soil samples. A now-iconic American flag was staked to the surface. They left behind medallions honoring the three astronauts who perished with Apollo 1, as well as two fallen cosmonauts. They affixed a plaque to the one of Eagle’s legs: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
The Eagle lifted off from the surface of the moon the next day, docking to Columbia without a hitch.
A day later, the three astronauts were on their long journey home. The crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, about 900 miles west of Hawaii. Mission complete for the most extraordinary feat in history.
“Can you imagine the hurdles that were faced by everyone at NASA at the time?” Browning said. “It was a big thing to see our country do it. We should take great pride in what we accomplished, but it should also be a lesson that we can do anything that we put our minds and resources to.”
We returned to the moon five more times, even taking up a “moon rover” vehicle on one mission. Moon missions became commonplace. Television ratings dropped and the networks went back to showing soap operas and regular programming.
We have not returned to the moon. However, NASA’s Artemis program plans to put a men or women back on the moon by 2024, with the long-term goal of reaching Mars in the not-too-distant future. Already, “Occupy Mars” T-shirts and decals are appearing in communities in Brevard County, Fla., near Kennedy Space Center. Who knows what the future holds?
Heck, we already have the directions to the moon.
“I remember being in third or fourth grade when Kennedy said, ‘We’re going to the moon — by God we’re going to the moon,’” said Murphy, who grew up to become a heart surgeon. “And we by God did it. What it took to get us there, it’s awe- inspiring.”