HOUSTON, Texas (KETK) – On July 20, 1969, the whole world waited, held its breath, and then watched in wonder as NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of their landing craft and onto the moon.
Armstrong’s famous words – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – have become as much a part of history as that small step itself.
(Fun fact: Armstrong always claimed he actually said, “That’s one small step for a man,” but that the “a” got lost in transit. And, in truth, that “one small step for a man” gives that “one giant leap for mankind” just a bit more oomph.)
The 8-day Apollo 11 mission was a stunning triumph for the United States, for science, and for humanity at large. It also served as a fulfillment of President John F. Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 to “put a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth” before the end of the decade.
For Americans who grew up watching NASA make its way to the moon one mission at a time, one image, apart from the rockets, became iconic – mission control – formally Mission Operations Control Room at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
That room was an odd mix of typical 1960s figures – men in white shirts (and they were almost always men we saw, though women also made invaluable contributions in getting to the moon), often with the sleeves rolled up, black-rimmed glasses, and skinny black ties – and a completely futuristic setting (for the 1960s), with big screens and, most importantly, row upon row of consoles and computers, the likes of which most Americans had never seen.
It is still incredible to think that, in an age before cell phones and laptop computers existed, before the internet put everything at our fingertips, we went to the moon. But we did. And the people in this room – those serious and so young (the average age of the people in that room was around 26 or 27) prototypical computer nerds – got us there.
While the rest of us were talking on landline telephones, and often using telephone numbers that started with two letters (such as LY in Tyler) instead of today’s 3-digit area code, those people in that room were talking to astronauts a quarter of a million miles away.
Now, in preparation for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the giant leap of everyone involved, NASA has restored that iconic room. And it looks exactly like it did 50 years ago when we were flinging men into space at the top of rockets taller than buildings and holding our collective breath until they came home again.
Or, in the case of the ill-fated Apollo 1 team, died in the attempt.
We have since gone far past the moon. And our technology certainly has advanced light years beyond what we saw in that room in 1969.
But, 50 years after that first “small step,” and with NASA now setting its eyes on Mars, we can take a moment to celebrate that room and what it meant, and wonder what we might be looking back on 50 years from now.