I heard the news that Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, died today at the age of 82. I was twelve years old when he walked on the Moon.
Things were pretty much black and white when you were a kid living in a middle class neighborhood in the ‘60s. The United States was good. Russia was bad. They were so bad that sometimes we had to practice crouching under our desks at school. Beating them to the moon would prove we were better than them. Like I said, black and white, simple. Accurate? That’s a whole other topic.
In a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy first talks about going to the moon. Having been surprised by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s successful space flight, including orbiting the Earth, on April 12, 1961, the US was still playing ‘catch up’ with the Russians. Alan Shepard had become the first US astronaut in space on May 5, 1961 but orbiting the Earth by a US astronaut would not be achieved until John Glenn did so on February 20th the following year. President Kennedy told Congress:
“… I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth…”
A second, more famous speech was delivered at Rice University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962. In it, President Kennedy explained why we should embrace the challenge of going to the moon.
“We choose to go to the moon. 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, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Growing up, I remember watching Mercury and then Apollo missions blast into space and return to Earth. With each mission, we were getting closer and closer to landing on the moon. The Russians were doing their best as well and the ‘space race’ was alive and well.
Apollo 11 lifted off on July 16, 1969 with Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. It was my dad’s birthday. How cool, I thought, to have such a ‘neat’ thing happen on your birthday.
The news media reported daily on Apollo 11’s progress. Not the 24-hours-a-day, ‘Breaking News’ text messages and Twittering that is done today. It was the Noon, 6:00 PM and 11:00 PM newscasts along with daily newspapers. News watching was an event that you planned back then. You had to be home when the news was on. No DVRs, internet or 24-hour news channels. It wasn’t the passive news-in-your-face activity that it is today.
“That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
As noted in the Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal:
As Andrew Chaikin detailed in A Man on the Moon, after the mission, Neil said that he had intended to say ‘one small step for a man’ and believed that he had done so. However, he also agreed that the ‘a’ didn’t seem to be audible in the recordings.
‘Man’, ‘a man’ – it was all the same to me. Spellbinding and amazing. I remember watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon like it was yesterday. It was magical then and still seems that way today.
Apollo 11 returned home on July 24th. To the moon and back in nine days. Pretty darn cool.
Five more Apollo missions would land astronauts on the moon, the last one coming in December 1972.
The world doesn’t seem as black and white to me now as it did back then. I guess that’s called ‘growing up. But it seems to me that the importance of landing on the moon and the sheer magnitude of such an achievement has lost a little bit of luster with each subsequent generation. That’s a shame. I can tell you that Neil Armstrong walking on the moon is definitely in my Top 10 news events of my lifetime, maybe even my Top 5. Neil Armstrong will forever be an American hero in my book.
Read more about Neil Armstrong at http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/bios/neilabio.html.