On July 20, 1969, roughly 700 million people – more than one-fifth of the global population at that time – gathered around television sets all across the Earth to watch Neil Armstrong become the first human to step onto the surface of our Moon at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, followed 19 minutes later by Buzz Aldrin.
The achievement of Armstrong and Aldrin culminated a decade-long effort by the United States that fulfilled the almost-unrealistic goal set by the late President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, when he said, “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 Earth.” Kennedy issued this prediction over his frustrations from the rival Soviet Union launching the first man-made satellite in Sputnik, then beating the United States in putting the initial human in orbit. Making this more daunting was that, up to that moment, the American program had just 15 total minutes in space, from Alan Shepard’s suborbital Mercury 3 flight less than three weeks earlier.
To commemorate this milestone, The Island Sand Paper asked several Fort Myers Beach residents to share their memories of that historic moment.
“I was a 14-year-old high school freshman in Gahanna, Ohio, but unfortunately I was not one of the millions watching television, though I sure wanted to! I was at a church camp that week, and television was not everywhere in those days, so the camp organizers had the several hundred of us teenagers gather around a campfire that night, where we heard Neil Armstrong utter his famous words on the radio! I was disappointed I could not watch, but there was a certain charm to using my imagination to visualize what was happening for myself.”
Rexann never wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. “I was really caught up in the Space Race, like almost every American in those days, but being an astronaut as a young woman in that era was not conceivable. There were only three television networks then – CBS, NBC & ABC – and the one you watched said a lot about you, and I was definitely a Walter Cronkite girl with CBS, as he was all about the space program and did a great job of explaining it to us. Also, as an Ohioan, I was understandably proud that Neil Armstrong from Wapakoneta was a fellow Buckeye, though I was more partial to John Glenn!”
She is surprised the human race has not gone back to the Moon or on to places like Mars. “I always think of mankind as moving forward, in adventure and innovations. Back in school, our ‘Weekly Reader’ featured stories about living on Mars, and on television, we grew up watching futuristic shows like ‘The Jetsons,’ for gosh sakes, so where is my flying car and jet pack! I wonder if we are moving forward at the pace we set back in those days. Even things like airplanes now seem to be taking a step back, as while they carry more people, they are slower than the former Concorde from 15 to 20 years ago. If technology did allow me to go to the Moon tomorrow, I am not sure I would, as there are still things I want to do here on Earth first, before it is too late, as the older you get, the faster time marches on.”
“I was in Old Lyme, Connecticut, on summer break from college, serving as a nanny, and we all gathered around the television. You just could not take your eyes off the TV during the entire time, from their landing on the moon to those historic first steps! All I could think of was, ‘Oh WOW!’ We just witnessed a whole new era of exploration and widened our horizons in ways we had never seen before and could only barely imagine just a few years prior to that.”
She remains a big supporter of space expIoration and is not disappointed by its current direction. “We are still at the very beginning stages of learning and finding about what is out there, so the future of mankind in space is still not only in front of us but generations to come. Technology makes great achievements in many areas, seemingly almost every day, but huge leaps often only occur once or twice a generation, like the first flight or first steps on the moon, and that is why we remember those so vividly. As for if I would travel to the Moon or Mars tomorrow if I could, I would have to give that a little more thought.”
Beverly stated that her husband has an interesting story from the very beginning of the Apollo 11 Mission: “He was born and raised here in Fort Myers, and was qualifying for his student pilot’s license. When Apollo 11 took off from Cape Kennedy, he was aboard a small plane watching the liftoff!”
“I was 15 years old and a high school junior. Six friends and myself were in the basement of my parent’s home in New York City, all gathered around the television watching it happen live! For me, I had an overwhelming sense of awe, as you could not help but to be struck by what was happening, as you could look out the window and see the moon, then know that it was absolutely occurring right then and in real time. That in fact may have been the most incredible thing about it for me – that we watched it on television all the way from the moon and it was happening right then, and I remember thinking that very specifically. It was not at all like Christopher Columbus sailing to America, then having to wait 8 months to find out what he discovered – you felt like you were right there with the astronauts!”
While admitting that “The Space Race” interested him, John did not dream of being an astronaut. “That was not my mindset, as I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, so space travel was not a priority. I had 31 cousins living within a mile-and-a-half of me so that was where my mind was in those days.” He finds it surprising, though, that we do not have colonies on the Moon or Mars. “Not only did I think we probably would, but it is hard to believe we are just now talking about going back again, as I thought we would already be there.”
Today’s technology, however, does not disappoint John. “Where technology has taken us is still pretty impressive, and it is so common now in our daily lives that we probably take a lot of it for granted. As for if I would travel to the Moon if I could, I do not think so. I am still trying to figure out what awe-inspiring things and places I should visit here on Earth, but it would be neat to have the option. I am curious how the younger generation will think about the 50th anniversary, and if they can relate to what an actual ‘Giant Leap’ this was for people.”
Ceel was 39 years old, living in Silver Lake, Ohio, roughly 55 miles from Cleveland, and absolutely watching the first steps with her late husband and four children who ranged from middle school to high school to a recent high school graduate. “We were all together, watching in front of the television, but the screen was all fuzzy and grainy and not very large. The kids were on summer vacation, but Ohio schools in those days went until mid-June, so before classes let out, their teachers all emphasized the moon landing, as this was a big event, and of course it was a constant topic around our dinner table, so we were so excited about this day! All four kids were the right age, as none were too young to comprehend its magnitude.”
What Ceel remembers most clearly “was the lunar module ladder, as that is what you saw first! Slowly came down one of Neil Armstrong’s boots, then another, and all the kids were so excited, my husband had to keep saying, ‘SHUSH!’ so he could hear, and of course we all remember Armstrong’s famous and perfect line! After it was over, my husband remarked that we all just watched the most remarkable thing. As for my kids, they were so proud the United States accomplished this, so their favorite part was when the astronauts planted the American Flag on the lunar surface; they even wanted to get out our telescope to try to see it, so that is my clearest memory – how proud I was as a parent that my children were so proud of their nation! None of the kids, however, wanted to be an astronaut, though we often drank ‘Tang’ for breakfast.”
The moon means a lot to Ceel and her family. “My kids gave me a pretty embroidery that says, ‘We Love You to the Moon & Back’ that still hangs in my bedroom. For years I have written a Family Newsletter and I always remind everyone that while we may not be physically together, we all live under the same moon, so it has a special place in the hearts of us all! I am amazed that space travel never really advanced over the past 50 years, and if I could travel to the Moon or Mars today, you bet I would and I think any member of my generation would love to!”
Sand Paper Writer
As for me, “I was 10 years old that magical night, and I definitely grew up an Astrokid! My only sibling was nine years older than I, so while he grew up playing cops-&-robbers and World War II soldier and got caught up in the craze of his generation – wearing a Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap – I tied pillows to myself to simulate a jetpack, slid down our second story stairs to execute perfect three-point landings and absolutely drank orange-flavored “Tang” every morning, because that is what real astronauts drank in space!
“My parents made sure we were all gathered in front of our only black-&-white television set to witness the historic achievement, as if they could possibly keep me away. Since Armstrong was to set foot on the Moon at roughly 11 p.m., I was already in my pajamas so I could go to bed right after – like I was going to be able to sleep that night. Things proceeded close to the schedule, with Armstrong taking his historic first step at 10:56 p.m. and uttering his immortal, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” that I instantly thought perfect.
“I judge our recent technological leaps frustrating, though I do find looking up facts and research on my computer and cellphone convenient rather than traveling to the library. I do like to razz my younger family members and friends, though, that while the generation before me and mine landed humans on the Moon, their greatest technological achievement is better telephones! If I could go to the Moon or Mars tomorrow, I sure would, to add my own small step to mankind’s next giant leap!”
Kennedy Space Center Programs
The Kennedy Space Center offers “One Giant Leap” on Saturday, July 20, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first step on the moon from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. View archival footage on the Rocket Garden lawn, with classic astronaut Corvettes, kid’s activity area, live DJ, and more, with a special ticketed VIP Program from 3:30 to 5 p.m. On Wednesday, July 24, attend the “Splashdown & Welcome Home Celebration” from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Kennedy Space Center is on Merritt Island, Florida; for additional information, call
877-313-2610 or visit www.KennedySpaceCenter.com.
In 2016, NASA released over 10,000 high resolution photos of the Apollo missions to prove the moon landing was real. Additional photos can be seen at Project Apollo Archive at bit.ly/A11photos
By Gary Mooney