It was a hot summer day 50 years ago; I was 11 living in El Paso. We had been to Las Cruces, New Mexico that Sunday afternoon. As my dad was driving us back from Las Cruces, we were listening to the radio in the car hearing about the moon landing. I was a nerdy kid and was quite the space buff.
I had a very detailed scale model of the Saturn V rocket with the Apollo spacecraft and lunar landing modules that I had built. The thing was almost 4 feet tall! I had another model of the Apollo spacecraft, and of course I had a model of the Gemini spacecraft as well. Yep, I was a nerd. In those days I could tell you about all of the statistics from all of the Apollo launch craft — how tall they were, how much they weighed, how many pounds of thrust, how fast they were going. To this day I still remember that the Saturn V rocket made a little over 7.5 million pounds of thrust! That’s a lot of horsepower! My dad knew I loved to watch the launches, so he would make sure to get me up bright and early on every launch day going back as far as I can remember. I saw all of the Gemini launches, the Gemini spacewalks, and of course all of the Apollo launches, including Apollo 11.
We were really trying to pay attention to the radio hoping to find out whether or not the lunar landing craft had successfully touched down on the moon and that the astronauts were all okay in the landing craft. We made it home shortly after they landed, but well before that first walk on the moon. We flipped on the big TV in the living room because the news people were saying that the pictures weren’t going to be all that great, and we wanted to see the best we could.
Of course, over the last 50 years I’ve seen the TV clips so many times it’s a little hard to remember that first live viewing versus what I’ve seen so many times in reruns. But this is what I recall from that evening in El Paso. El Paso, Texas is on Mountain time, two hours earlier than the East Coast. So, if the timeslots don’t jive with your memory we may have been in different locations.
I remember complaining how cruddy the picture was, and I remember my dad telling me not to be too picky because this picture was coming from over 250,000 miles from Earth. I guess I thought it would be clearer – again, a real nerd. I remember that we were watching the channel with Walter Cronkite, and that he was getting pretty excited about things. If I recall, there was a camera outside of the landing craft that was showing the lunar surface and a little bit of the lower leg of the LEM (the lunar module). Mostly we were listening while Walter Cronkite was talking.
And then it happened! There was this spacesuit, and all I could see was the guy’s feet and lower legs coming down that ladder to the little round landing pad on the leg of the LEM. And of course, Neil Armstrong’s words were impossible to forget, and even now I get kind of emotional thinking about it. “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
I was only 11, but I remember what I was thinking really clearly. I was thinking how cool this was, and was thinking that we could do anything. I mean, hey, we have a guy walking around on the moon! We can do anything! I was really proud of that accomplishment, and I was super proud to be an American. And if you know me very well, you know my mind was racing along already thinking about the Mars mission. Well, I’m still waiting for that, and I guess I better not hold my breath.
It’s hard to put into words how exciting that moment was seeing those first steps, and watching the astronauts set up the flag on another planet. Okay, I know the moon is not a planet; but it was another body in space a heck of a long way from home. I don’t even know how to describe all of the feelings. Even today, 50 years later, when I think back on that moment it’s just kind of overwhelming. It was, and still is, the single most incredible event I have ever seen.
In some ways I suppose that Apollo 11 landing on the moon helped shape at least a part of the person that I am today. Certainly, the awe of the space program and all of that technology helped make me the nerdy, inquisitive kid that I was. I am still a nerd, and I still love to learn. I think that the space program helped to keep me inspired to push my education and my learning as far as I could. And I definitely think that it helped give me that feeling that is still with me today, “We can do anything; we put people on the moon.”
So, that’s where I was and what I was thinking on Sunday, July 20, 1969. Where were you and what were you thinking?