TYLER, Texas (KETK) – “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Those words – so simple, so spare, so calmly spoken – still send chills up and down the spine.
“The Eagle has landed.”
Words spoken 50 years ago, across a quarter of a million miles, to a NASA mission control room – and a world – waiting, watching, and holding its breath as, for the first time, men born of Earth landed on an alien world.
On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Alden Armstrong and Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. separated their lunar module, named Eagle, from the Columbia command module piloted by Michael Collins, and descended to the surface of the Moon, transforming a century of science fiction into science fact.
Man had landed on the Moon.
And man was still about to do more.
Six hours after landing on what they dubbed “Tranquility Base,” Armstrong stepped outside the Eagle, climbed down a ladder, and stepped out onto the surface of the Moon.
“That’s one small step for (a) man,” Armstrong said in words that now belong to history, “and one giant leap for mankind.”
It remains the most gargantuan “small step” ever taken.
Armstrong was joined minutes later on that gray, barren and airless surface by Aldrin while Collins, Apollo 11’s “third man,” waited and watched from above in Columbia.
Collins and mission control weren’t the only ones watching.
An estimated 1 million people crowded the sweltering beaches and roadways of what had been named Cape Kennedy in Florida, in honor of the slain president whose words had launched the Moon shot, to witness those words come to fruition. Among the notables gathered in the VIP section were politicians – Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and former President and First Lady Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson.
Also present were legendary pilot Charles Lindbergh, a pioneer of aviation, and writer Isaac Asimov – the fact and the fiction of flight, the past and speculative future of man’s attempt to “break the surly bonds of earth.”
Those on the beach in Florida, though, were only a small portion of the vast audience Apollo 11 would draw. More than half a billion people are estimated to have watched the landing and moonwalk on televisions around the world, making that “small step” a truly universal and communal moment.
Collins has since said in interviews that when the Apollo 11 crew toured the world after the landing, he first expected that people would view the landing as an American achievement. What he heard, though, wherever he went, was people exulting that “we” did this – we, everyone, humanity.
Or, as Armstrong had said while still on that surface, mankind.
And mankind needed that moment at that time.
In 1969, the U.S. and what was then the Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War, which so many feared could explode into a “hot,” or shooting, war at any second. Meanwhile, the U.S. was embroiled in an actual and very hot war in Vietnam, which was tearing the country apart.
The previous year, 1968, had been brutal in this country. Often called “the year that shattered America,” it was marked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the seizing of the U.S.S. Pueblo by North Korea, race riots and violent clashes between war protesters and police, and so much more.
The country, and the world, desperately needed that one, shining victory, that moment of peaceful ascendancy.
Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, the culmination of eight years of breakneck labor involving a workforce of 400,000 and a price tag in the billions, all aimed at winning the space race and beating the Soviet Union to the Moon.
NASA was also trying to meet a strict deadline issued by President John F. Kennedy “to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the earth” before the decade was out.
Kennedy’s challenge seemed daunting, perhaps even impossible. When he gave his 1961 speech, NASA had barely 15 minutes of human suborbital flight under its belt, with Alan Shepard’s historic Mercury 1 flight on May 5.
The Soviet Union had beaten the U.S. in every other arena of space flight – the first satellite (Sputnik, 1957), the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961), the first lunar probes, even the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963).
To met the challenge, NASA recruited a mobilized an army that grew into about 400,000 engineers, mathematicians, scientists, mechanics, technicians, pilots, divers, seamstresses, secretaries and more who worked behind the scenes to put those three men on the Moon. And many of those people were young, only two or three years out of college. The average age of the people working in mission control was 26 or 27.
And maybe that was the secret. Maybe they were just too young to know that what they were doing was impossible.
The victory, though, did not come without sacrifice.
Space is dangerous. Pioneering is dangerous. And strapping men into small spaces perched atop giant rockets filled with fuel is dangerous. The nation learned that to its horror and sorrow on January 27, 1967, when Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee, the astronauts of Apollo I, died in a cabin fire in their command module during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy.
The disaster could have ended NASA’s race to the Moon. Instead, the agency studied what happened, learned from its mistakes, and, on December 21, 1968, sent astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders up in Apollo 8 to orbit the Moon and give the United States the “Christmas miracle” it so badly needed.
NASA narrowly averted another disaster with Apollo 13 in 1970, when the phrase, “Houston, we’ve got a problem” entered the national vocabulary. (Fun fact: The actual statement from pilot John Swigert to Mission Control was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”)
But the dangers of space travel were forcibly re-imprinted onto the nation’s – and world’s – consciousness twice more, with the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986, and the Columbia explosion on February 1, 2003. The Challenger disaster left us with the phrase, “Challenger, go with throttle up” followed by the sight of the shuttle exploding against a bright blue sky and memories of Christa McAuliffe, the first “teacher in space.”
The Columbia disaster hit close to home for many East Texans as the shuttle disintegrated in the skies above our region upon reentry into the atmosphere and rained down debris and the remains of the seven astronauts killed into local forests, parks, city streets and yards. Local residents organized search parties and worked side by side with NASA staff to recover as many remains as possible and return the lost astronauts to their families.
Going into space is dangerous. And no one knew that better than the men riding those rockets and the vast army of NASA personnel who sent them there. But they went.
And still they go.
NASA now sends astronauts not to the Moon but to the International Space Station. And it now sends women. Sally Ride broke that particular barrier in 1983, a full 20 years after the Russians – or Soviets, then – did.
But NASA plans to return to the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program. And NASA also is aiming for Mars. We’re already there, of course, in the form of the Curiosity Rover, the mechanical explorer roaming the surface of the Red Planet and sending all kinds of data back to earth.
And because we live in an age of social media, you can follow Curiosity on Twitter, something the Apollo crew surely never envisioned, and explore space from the comfort of Earth.
Apollo astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin also are on Twitter. Sadly, Neil Armstrong died in 2012 and did not live to join his Apollo companions in this year’s celebration of his momentous “leap.”
NASA has an amazing website that can answer almost any question you may have about space, space travel, the science of space, the engineering of exploration – anything. No, really, anything. The site includes glorious high resolution photos of this galaxy and so many others, all of which can be downloaded and make gorgeous computer wallpapers or screensavers (not that we’d know from personal experience or anything; nope, not us.)
And those of us who’ve developed a podcast addiction have several ways to feed our need.
The BBC World Service has a phenomenal podcast called “13 Minutes to the Moon.” The 11-episode series dives deep into Apollo 11, showcasing the program’s origins and history, the people who worked on it, the steps forward and the steps backward, the tragedies and triumphs.
The Moonstruck podcast by Drafthouse Media is a seven-part series that takes a much broader look at the U.S. space program than just Apollo 11.
And NASA, of course, has a podcast, NASA Explorers: Apollo, a four-part series that tells stories of the Moon and the people who explore it. (NASA actually has several podcasts, all of which are addicting; don’t say we didn’t warn you.)
Podcasts, Twitter and Facebook are all just reminders that we’ve come so far from the relatively “primitive” technology that got us to the Moon. And yet that technology did get us there.
Women and men worked and sacrificed and struggled and pushed the boundaries of what was known farther ahead than anyone thought was possible. Men strapped themselves to rockets and flew into space without any real idea of what awaited them.
Apollo 11 took off on July 16 and returned to earth July 24. Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface of the Moon for about 22 hours, two and a half of those spent walking. They collected rock and soil samples, planted an American flag, deployed scientific equipment, and took a phone call from President Richard M. Nixon.
From Earth. A quarter of a million miles away. In the time before iPhones and cell towers.
They also left a plaque, which remains to this day, celebrating the peaceful intent of the mission.
And a nation – a world – watched and waited and hoped and dreamed.
When the Eagle landed, when Neil Armstrong took his “one small step,” somehow, a quarter of a million miles away, we were all right there.
Together, mankind took that giant leap.