On this day in 1969 the Eagle (the LEM, or Lunar Excursion Module of the Apollo 11) landed on the moon. A few hours later two men got out, walked around, took pictures, and collected samples. Later they would abandon the craft that had landed on the moon, return to the earth in the command module named “Columbia,” and spend weeks in quarantine in case they had brought back something unexpected.
I grew up knowing we were going to the moon, and that the lunar trip was only the start of mankind’s Great Adventure. One of my few memories of one grandfather is him taking me outside where we were visiting him in Baltimore. He’d seen in the paper that a sputnik was going to pass over that night, so Grandpa, Dad, and me went out in the yard to watch for it. (No, spelling “sputnik” that way wasn’t an error. The first two artificial satellites were Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. By the time the US launched Explorer 1 people said that America had finally launched a sputnik. For around three years, until JFK announced the race to the moon, “sputnik” was a generic term for “artificial satellite.” Dad and Grandpa even discussed whether that particular sputnik was ours or theirs, though I don’t remember if they settled that question.)
I learned about space and the space program in school. “Apogee” and “perigee” were spelling and vocabulary words in elementary school. We got new math and science books to prepare us for our part in the new age of discovery that we would be a continuing part of. I had ViewMaster stereo slides that showed me in 3D what each step of the lunar mission would be like made by taking pictures of models at least five years before Apollo 11. And to top it all off, I read science fiction. (My Junior High librarian was a Fan, and took great delight in recruiting new fans. She’d hook us with space opera, then feed us the Good Stuff later.) So I knew about space, with all the lofty disdain any teen can manage for his poor unenlightened elders.
But that day, my family, like everyone we knew and hundreds of millions around the world glued to a TV. My parents were excited at each step.“That rocket ship is going to the moon!” “Yes, we know. Just like the last one.” “But they’re going to LAND!” “I know, Mom.”
I always felt sorry for the crew of Apollo 10. They flew all the way out to the moon, did all the stuff to verify that the LEM could still be detached after all that time in space, then looped around and came back to Earth without ever landing. I secretly rooted for them to disobey, and take their LEM down to the surface. How was anybody going to stop them from Houston?
But then Eagle actually started down, and somehow I lost my jaded teenaged attitude. When Neil Armstrong took manual control I held my breath with everyone else. The fuel held out, with 25 seconds worth to spare. Then came the magic words:
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
I gave out a whoop, but I don’t know if anyone else noticed, as they were all cheering too. A minute later a car horn started blaring down the street somewhere, joined shortly by others, the popping of a few illegal firecrackers probably smuggled up from Tijuana and left over from Independence Day. It was real.
More dull time while we waited for the astronauts to come out. What? They get to the moon and the first thing they want to do is EAT?
I got bored waiting for the astronauts to come out, but wasn’t permitted to go read.“Those are TV pictures from the MOON!” “I know Mom, I saw them land.” “But it’s THE MOON!” [Eyeroll]
So we watched Walter Cronkite and the other newsmen interview each other (did you think that was new?), discuss what was next, show wall charts and animations of what had happened so far, what hadn’t gone wrong, what would be next, and what would happen in coming days. Sometimes we were looking at studio shots, sometimes mission control, sometimes at video from Eagle (FROM THE MOON!)
Then Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder, and stepped off of the landing pad.
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” [Cue forty-odd years of arguing over whether the "a" was there and got lost in transmission or not.]
We’d done it. We’d set foot on another body in the solar system. The Great Adventure had begun.