Houston, Monday July 21 — Men have landed and walked on the moon.
That was the lede graph in the story published by the New York Times on July 21, 1969. It was a simple statement, clean and clear — but still unusual for that era of journalism. In those days the dictum by editors was for reporters to provide the who, what, where and when in sometimes cumbersome syntax. According to a special section produced by the Times on this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission, the writing style would be different for this earth-redefining event.
The reporter assigned to cover the mission was John Noble Wilford, the top science writer for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner. According to the Times account, he spent a sleepless night shortly after the July 16 launch worrying over crafting the perfect sentence that would convey the importance of the landing, the cultural, news and scientific enormity of it. As he crafted those eight words, he was still worried that some old guard copy editor would kick it back as unusable and request something “stiff and clunky.”
He had no real need to worry. The editor who hired him, Harrison Salisbury, wanted to eliminate “stiff and clunky” writing at the newspaper. Salisbury also told Wilford something else. He didn’t want him to cover the moon landing as a science story, a flight story or an engineering story — even though it could have been any of those things. No, Salisbury wanted Wilford to write the “story of a big adventure.”
And so it was.
When I was growing up in the 1960s the U.S. space program was built upon one stunning achievement after another; one grand, heroic and dangerous adventure after another; one earth-changing scientific breakthrough after another. All of this was reported on the evolving medium of TV with high drama, exhilaration and sometimes tragedy via the only three networks available for millions of Americans at that time. It was a shared experience as few things are today in a world dominated by the Internet, social media, video streaming and, for now, cable TV. There was also much at stake in this Cold War space race pitting America against the Soviet Union. Our national pride was on the line. Our commitment to achieve lofty goals directly met our resistance to change and big spending. This occurred in a backdrop of cultural and political upheaval in the United States that isn’t so different than the sorrowful and contentious state of the nation today.
But the protests, and war and violence and anger and controversy were somehow balanced by the mission to the moon. It was grand theater with science, discovery, innovation and bravery at center stage. People rooted for the unlikely mission to succeed, even those who thought the entire program a waste of money. It was American know how and dedication on display for the world to see.
Just about every single person in America who had access to a TV — not everybody did — watched the space race unfold one launch, one orbit, one spacewalk and one ocean splashdown at a time. The moon landing on July 20, 1969 would be the culmination of this long narrative set in motion by President Kennedy and started by the Mercury 7 astronauts. Many optimistically believed this voyage by humans to another world would be a gateway to “Star Trek” adventures and exploration of new worlds. This seemed not only plausible but likely. Fifty years ago people who had no TV in their home, visited relatives who did. People gathered in large numbers on a late Sunday night. Some even watched from sidewalks as storefronts presented TVs in shop windows.
For me, the entire evolution of the space program was exciting. Back then I had no interest in being a journalist. I wanted to be an astronaut or baseball player. Men in spacesuits being fired into the sky via high-powered rockets amid smoke and fire captured a kid’s imagination. TV broadcaster Walter Cronkite had already transitioned from steely reporter to legendary and grandfatherly news anchor. He was a master at explaining the science behind the space missions that featured heroes like Alan Shepard and John Glenn. He also gravely articulated the extreme dangers that accompanied every launch, orbit, spacewalk or blazing re-entry into earth’s atmosphere.
On July 20, 1969, I was almost 10 years old but had already witnessed miraculous achievements by America’s space program, which had been challenged by President Kennedy in 1961 to land on the moon by the end of the decade. In context, the first powered flight of any kind had occurred in 1903. Space seemed impossible when Kennedy made his declaration. The program didn’t always go smoothly. On Jan. 27, 1967, the potential for tragedy became all too real when a fire during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1 claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Grissom was an original Mercury 7 astronaut and the second American in space.
It was a chilling reminder of what was also possible. I never took anything for granted about the space program again.
In July of 1969, the moon flight galvanized the imaginations of millions of people around the world. I remember going to an aunt and uncle’s house to watch it all unfold. They had a color TV, and we didn’t yet. Color TV brought new life to the launch itself. The images from the moon were black and white with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin often appearing to be moving in slow motion. I was reminded recently how amazing in retrospect, any TV images from the moon in 1969 truly were. For context, the antenna on the roof of my parents house in Danbury North Carolina couldn’t pick up the NBC station located 20 miles away in Winston-Salem. These images are perhaps one reason there were and probably still are people who believe we have never landed on the moon, that it was all a hoax.
What I remember most was the dramatic TV coverage anchored by Cronkite on CBS. There were many moments where very little happened, which heightened the tension. From the explosive liftoff to the moon landing of the lunar module, Eagle there were high moments interspersed with commentary from Mission Control in Houston and the voices of the astronauts themselves, sometimes indecipherable. Armstrong and Aldrin walking upon the moon’s surface was fraught with potential peril and there was fear they couldn’t get Eagle back in the air to re-connect with the command module for the trip back home. The fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere was always dicey.
There was lots of breath-holding around the nation until the astronauts splashed down safely in the vast expanse of an ocean. The astronauts were heroes in need of a shave.
It seemed back then that America could accomplish anything it wanted. It was a time of creativity, ingenuity and potential for greatness. I had the opportunity recently to speak with a graduate of then Elon College who became an aerospace engineer for NASA during those heady times. Wally Sawyer, an Elon grad in 1964 with a degree in physics, was with NASA into the next century, working with the shuttle and space station programs. Read more about Sawyer’s NASA days in this story by Patrick Wright for University Communications at Elon. Sawyer in this NASA photo taken in 2000 with the crew of the Shuttle Discovery. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to someone so closely associated with the extraordinary advancements made in those days. I still remember how exciting it was to see the first space shuttle return from space and land just like a 747 might at Raleigh-Durham Airport. When I worked for the Jacksonville Daily News I always hoped that one day NASA would need to use one of the alternate shuttle landing sites — the one at Cherry Point, the Marine Corps Air Station in nearby Havelock. It’s never happened.
In all, 12 men explored the moon in six landings through 1972, and then the program’s focus shifted. By 2004, the technology to go to the moon was simply gone. Imagine that. Poof, not there anymore. NASA in 2014 set plans for a new mission to the moon, this time for a landing in 2020 but I haven’t read much about it lately. I know President Trump has endorsed a return to the moon as part of a space force — something that sounds more Avengers than Enterprise. Still, there is potential for future space exploration, perhaps. Private investors and companies headed by people like Elon Musk and his SpaceX program have space travel as a goal. At the 45-year anniversary of the first moon landing, Aldrin appointed himself as the “global statesman for space” and reminded people to remember where they were 45 years ago when he, Armstrong and Michael Collins were on that landmark voyage.
On the 50-year anniversary, Aldrin is 89 and Collins is 88. Both are reminders of a what America can achieve when we find enough common ground to work together and put aside difference. America faces grand challenges today that need the creativity, intelligence and dedication of engineers and other scientists. Many of challenges are right here at home, only lacking the vision and leadership to move forward with unlimited energy. But America itself seems to only have enough energy to monitor Twitter, participate in Amazon Day or see what’s streaming next on Netflix. Meanwhle, the world gets warmer every day.
The Apollo 11 anniversary reminds me that five years ago I took part in a summer camp for third-grade students from homes where financial means are limited who are struggling in school. We read books together and I talked about my career, which at the time was in journalism. They asked what I wanted to be when I was their age.
“An astronaut,” I said.
“An astro-what?” they replied.
“You know, an astronaut,” I told them. “We were landing people on the moon back in those days,” I added, trying to help them out.
Crickets. They had nothing on it. Zip. Nada.
Maybe it’s time for another giant leap. America could use a big, bold adventure right now.