Some of the most vivid memories I have from my childhood revolve around the space program in general, and Apollo 11 in particular. I do remember spending that Sunday afternoon of July 20, 1969 at my grandmother’s house, my eyes glued to the television as we watched NBC’s coverage of the moon landing. The broadcast (hosted by Chet Huntley) might have been boring by current standards - it largely consisted of the audio feed from NASA and some pretty basic animations of what was has happening. Still, for this eight year old boy it was fascinating stuff. As evening approached, I remember the anticipation of the moon walk. In the early evening, I was sitting on the floor, playing with my paper pop-out model of the lunar module provided by one of the local service stations (either Shell or 76). being lovingly watched by my parents and mocked by my seventeen year old brother. My sister, just short of her sixth birthday, understandably was not quite as taken with this historic day as I. My anticipation grew (as did my fatigue) as the day wore on, and I worried about falling asleep before the event took place (around the 10:00 p.m. hour in our part of the country).
Finally, network coverage of the event began (we were watching Cronkite on CBS, which had a great visual and musical theme to begin their coverage). The lunar module’s camera was deployed, and images transmitted were ghostly black-and-white and difficult at times to make out. Regardless, it was incredibly exciting to see Neil Armstrong descend that ladder and become the first man to set foot upon the moon. In spite of my sleepiness, I did stay awake for most of the moon walk, watching the fuzzy images and listening to the commentary of Armstrong and Buz Aldrin. Shortly after the planting of the American flag and the phone call from President Nixon to the astronauts, I lost my battle to remain awake. This young, tired boy, sprawled out on the multi-colored shag carpeting in our family room, finally drifted off to sleep on that hot and humid Indana night.
The following day, Mom took my sister and I downtown to see a movie matinee (the “Love Bug”). I always have loved going to the movies, but on that day my feelings were mixed. The networks were scheduled to cover the blast-off from Tranquility Base and I didn’t want to miss it. When I got home, I found out that the camera that had broadcast the moon-walk was not functioning at the time of the launch, and once again it was just the NASA audio feed and a few animations. Even so, I felt like I had missed out. As a result, I insisted on being home when the networks covered the splashdown and recovery of the Apollo 11 command module and the crew.
There were several other moon missions, and I fascinated by them all. The quality of the television broadcasts improved dramatically (although Apollo 12’s first ever color moon broadcast was cut short when the camera’s tube was burnt out by being pointed toward the sun). But the following missions didn’t quite have the same magic as the first one. Apollo 11 would always be special and unique, because it was the first. Late one night, during the flight of Apollo 12, my parents and I sat in our darkened front room watching NBC’s coverage. An image was broadcast marking not the spot on the moon of the prospective Apollo 12 landing site, but that on Apollo 11. That’s about all I really remember of that evening’s coverage (other than the really neat promo for the oil company that was sponsoring the broadcast, which featured a great theme with the company’s name superimposed on a field of clouds - can’t remember if was Gulf or Texaco). I fell asleep on that old, scratchy green couch, and my father carried me up to bed.
Neil Armstrong never cashed in on his fame. He retired from the space program and entered academia (working for a time at my old stomping grounds of the University of Cincinnati). During the forty-three years after his momentus walk on the moon, he remained a very private person, only surfacing on rare occasions (such as appearing at the White House with his fellow Apollo 11 crew-mates to mark the anniversary of the flight or issuing written statements about his hopes for the future of the space program). Like so many others, I really would have liked to have known more about Armstrong and his personal feelings and observations about that historic flight. But Armstong let Apollo 11 speak for itself, and perhaps that is just as well.
Obviously, I share in the nation’s sadness at the news of his passing, but also celebrate his accomplishments, his service to this nation, his contribution to the advancement of scientific knowledge and the dignity with which he lived out those post-Apollo 11 years. Thanks Neil for those thrilling memories from my youth that will last with me to my dying day.