photo by Neil A. Armstrong (courtesy NASA)
If you were an American child in the 1960s, especially (regrettably) if you were a boy, a major chapter in your youth closed when the Apollo 11 command module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 50 years ago today.
I was 11 that summer. A few days earlier, 600 million people around the world – three times the entire U.S. population at the time, in a world where a lot of people had yet to own a television – watched as Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I was not among them.
It was the last summer my family stayed at a bungalow colony in New York’s Catskill Mountains. We did not have a television in the tiny two-room seasonal cottage that my parents rented for the summer, as was the custom among a large slice of New York’s Jewish population. The Kozan family, who owned the bungalow colony, graciously invited anyone who cared to watch to come to their living room. There were a lot of people there that night, including me.
The astronauts were expected to emerge at around 10 p.m. Eastern time. But it took longer for them to make the needed preparations inside the cramped lunar module than it had taken during practice runs on Earth. Armstrong did not exit the module until around 11:00 that night. I had gotten tired and cranky, or maybe my mother just thought it was time to go home and give the Kozans some peace. Either way, I was back in the bungalow when history was made.
Still, it had been an exciting adventure, and it was not over. Nobody had ever gone to the moon before, which meant nobody had ever returned safely from the moon either. That final, epic feat occurred on the morning of July 24, 1969, when the three-member crew and their craft landed in the Pacific Ocean about 930 statute miles (812 nautical miles) southwest of Hawaii.
The return was not without drama. First there was the fiery reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere, which sent glowing pieces of heat shielding flying off the module. The spectacle looked alarming in photographs, but the shield was acting as it was designed to do.
Far below the spacecraft, on the U.S.-held island of Guam, the bearings in a tracking station seized up, threatening to render Apollo incommunicado during the last phase of its flight. The station’s director, Charles Force, had his 10-year-old son Greg use his small hands to grease the bearings and restore the station to operation. This made Greg one of the luckiest and most important boys on the planet. Armstrong later thanked him personally for his help.
The returning astronauts received a hero’s welcome, though not right away. Although scientists knew the chance of encountering life on the moon was virtually nil, nobody had ever had the chance to prove that the moon was microbe-free. So the astronauts had to don biological containment suits before they emerged from their floating capsule. They remained in quarantine for 21 days after they returned.
I was too young to remember the faltering beginnings of the American space program, or to have absorbed the fears that the Soviets who had launched Sputnik the year I was born would gain control of the heavens for their own (presumed dastardly) purposes. I learned about Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard in school, a few years after their respective historic forays into space. I also learned about Laika, the Soviet space dog who gave her life for science when she flew aboard one of the early Russian satellites.
My earliest direct memory of the space program was the far more tragic incident in January 1967 on a day when I happened to be home sick from school. Three Apollo 1 astronauts died in a flash fire during a test at Cape Canaveral. But from then onward I was able to follow the space program’s highs and lows closely, except during the summers, when my only sources of news were my tabletop radio and an occasional copy of the New York Post or Daily News. We weren’t yet a Times family.
There would be other lunar missions to follow Apollo 11, mostly successful, although Apollo 13 was a success only in that it avoided a tragic end. More space pioneering work would follow in the decades to come, and more tragedy with the loss of two shuttles. The pioneering continues today, albeit at a far slower pace than the breakneck space race of the 1960s.
Still, the splashdown 50 years ago closed a chapter in our lives, one that could not be repeated. We were going to the moon! And then we had gone to the moon. You could never go for the first time again.
We were left with the tumult of the 1960s, which evolved into the depressing drumbeat of the 1970s, with Vietnam, Watergate, violent radicalism at home and in Europe, the rise of terrorism and inflation, and the demise of the Beatles. It wasn’t all bad, of course – especially for women, who finally began to gain traction in their drive for equal treatment. But it was bad enough to make American TV viewers flock to an idealized vision of the Eisenhower years called “Happy Days.” As far as I know, “Happy Days” never addressed Sputnik and our fears of losing the space race.
There was a hopeful, optimistic theme to the American lunar program. It was captured in a plaque that the Apollo 11 astronauts left behind after their one-day stay on the Sea of Tranquility.
“HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON,” it reads. “JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.”