Everyone is writing about where they were 40 years ago today when Armstrong and Aldrin first set foot on the moon, so I thought I should also chime in. It was certainly one of those defining moments.
For over 40 years (wow, that’s hard to believe) our family has gone on vacation every summer to White Lake, North Carolina. It’s a beautiful lake formed, coincidentally, by the impact of a small meteorite opening up a spring. I’ve planned to write more about those vacations. Anyway, that’s where I was on July 20, 1969.
We have always stayed at an area called Goldston’s Beach in a little U-shaped cluster of cottages (back then). they were of different sizes, but basically had a kitchen, a big screened in porch with bedrooms all along the porch. A bunch of extended family went along, as well as some neighbors, so we had most of the cottages in that cluster.
As I remember the moon walk was late at night (late for a 10 year old anyway). We had moved the 19 inch black and white TV with the rabbit ears outside one of the cottages, and the antennae definitely included some tin foil. I can’t remember for sure, but we might have had to bring the TV with us. It was sitting on top of one of the ice chests, and everyone crowded around in the old plastic web lawn chairs.
It was quite the community event. Of course we watched the coverage provided by Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra. They were the “color commentators” for one of the most outstanding human achievements of all time. I felt like an expert on space flight and the moon landing after having seen all the explanations with models and animation put on by Cronkite, Schirra and CBS. I think Cronkite rejoiced in that accomplishment, and so did we all. I don’t remember us hooting and hollering, but I do recall everyone applauding. I also remember looking at the moon really hard to try to see the space craft up there.
For a brief time, I entertained the notion, as did many kids of that era, of being an aerospace engineer. The planets, and even the stars, seemed a lot closer that hot evening in July. Later I found out how much math was involved, so that ended that dream. My sister got the math gene.
I’ve since visited the Air Force museum in Dayton, OH and had a chance to peer into a Gemini Capsule and an Apollo command module. What fragile and rickety looking things they were…nothing like the bridge of starship Enterprise. I’ve heard the conspiracy theorists claim that we didn’t have the technology to pull it off, so it couldn’t be true. I suspect if we had looked at Columbus’ ships back in his day, and certainly if we looked at them today, we’d never assume he had the “technology” to make it to the America’s and back. NASA has a remarkable safety record when you think about what they have accomplished in pushing the boundaries of our exploration, but I suspect, as was probably the case with other great explorers, astronauts were exposed to greater risks than even they realized, and probably came close to disaster sometimes without even knowing it.
It was a proud time for Americans. I think we believed we could accomplish anything, and although mostly unspoken, there was the relief that we beat the Russians to the moon. I think it somehow made us feel just a little more safe. It’s hard to believe now this was the pinnacle of manned space flight. Our sights were so much higher then, and even with the war in Vietnam, the future seemed a bit brighter then.
So that’s where I was, off in the eastern part of North Carolina, huddled around a TV set outside and surrounded by a large collection of friends and family. Where were you on that day?