The 50th anniversary of this country’s July 20, 1969, moon landing brings back fond memories of a time when the United States accomplished one of mankind’s greatest feats. My family’s first experience with space travel came in 1968 when we were in Houston and took our two youngsters to see “2001: A Space Odyssey,” what is now considered an epic science fiction film.
I suppose we didn’t’ understand the significance of the movie because we considered it one of the most boring we had ever seen. The film followed a voyage to Jupiter with mission pilots and scientists and HAL 9000, the ship’s computer that had a human personality.
A year later, the world became fixated with Apollo 11’s trip to the moon that carried American astronauts to a successful landing.
The Associated Press reported that never before had so many people traveled to Cape Kennedy, Fla., to watch a show that would last three minutes at best.
“Over a network of roads that would be taxed by a football game crowd, officials expect 350,000 cars, the Poor People’s Campaign mule train, a man running from Houston, Texas, and another coming by bicycle,” The AP said. Some 3,000 boats were expected on two rivers to watch the launch.
The late Sam “Lefty” Tarleton was an reporter at the time. If memory serves me correctly, Sam had set up some kind of press meeting in Jennings on the day Apollo 11 was to land on the moon. We had to watch the landing on a hotel television set.
“What are we doing here?” the rest of us wondered on such an historic day. However, knowing Sam, it was our own fault.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) expected to accommodate 5,000 VIPs, 1,500 other guests and 3,000 to 5,000 newsmen near the launch site. The Saturn 5 rocket was to lift off 3½ miles away. One member of Congress said 254 of the 433 members of the House (two vacancies at time) and 30 of the 100 senators had accepted a free plane trip to Florida.
Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., the three astronauts making the voyage, took it easy on Sunday, July 13, 1969, as the countdown began for the Wednesday, July 16, scheduled blastoff.
The Saturn would hurl the Apollo spacecraft into an earth orbit 115 miles high and shortly after noon the third rocket stage would propel the ship on its course toward the moon 230,000 miles away. Armstrong and Aldrin were expected to set Eagle, their lunar module, down in the moon’s Sea of Tranquility at 4:19 p.m. Sunday, July 20. They would begin their moon exploration the next day.
Collins would wait in the mother ship for the other two to return in their lunar module after their stay of 22 hours on the moon. The temperature on the moon was 200 degrees above zero in sunlight and 200 below in the shade. The AP said failure of the lunar module engine would leave Armstrong and Aldrin stranded on the moon with two days of oxygen left to them.
The launch went well, and The AP said, “Reaching for a dream, America’s Apollo 11 astronauts hurtled across the vastness of space today on a voyage of the ages, an attempt to land men on the moon.”
Plans called for the two men to plant an American flag on the surface as a symbol of conquest, but they wouldn’t claim the territory for the United States. They were scheduled to leave a plaque behind with these words:
“Here men from the planet earth
“First set foot upon the moon
“July 1969 A.D.
“We came in peace for all mankind.”
Eagle landed safely, and The AP said an estimated 500 million people around the world had a ringside seat to man’s greatest adventure, and it was unforgettable.
“Armstrong climbed through the LM hatch and started backing down a nine-rung ladder,” the news report said. “On the second rung from the bottom, he opened a compartment, exposing a television camera….
“As Armstrong planted his size 91/2 left foot on the powdery surface at 9:56 a.m. Sunday, he spoke words that will be remembered for all time. ‘That’s one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.’”
Armstrong and Aldrin blasted off safely from the moon and into lunar orbit on Monday. After connecting with the mother ship, mission control asked Collins how it felt to have company.
“Damned good, I’ll tell you,” he replied.
The three men steered their Apollo 11 spaceship on Thursday, July 24, to a near-pin point landing in the Pacific Ocean nine miles from the USS Hornet, the recovery ship. Back in Houston at mission control, a display board flashed President John F. Kennedy’s words of May 25, 1961, when he pledged this country would land men on the moon in that decade and return them safely to earth.