Monday, July 20, 2009

The Original Moon Walk

I don't know how long my life will last, but I think I will always remember the night of July 20, 1969.

And I think anyone who is old enough to remember that day will say the same thing. My brother, for example, was 6 years old, and I'm sure he remembers it, but anyone who was younger than that might not have much recollection of it.

Anyway, I feel pretty safe in assuming that most of the people who were alive on that day remember it because that is the day that two men landed on the moon and then walked on the moon's surface. No man had ever done that before, and less than a dozen Americans have done it since.

In hindsight, though, I really wonder why we were all so concerned about whether Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would be able to descend from the lunar module to the surface of the moon. I'm not sure of the exact distance, but my guess is that it was about 15–20 feet down a ladder. What did we all think might happen? Did we think they would spontaneously explode because of the change of pressure? Did we think they would go flying off into space, never to be seen again?

There was always more reason for concern — at least I thought so — when the astronauts were landing the lunar module on the moon or taking off to rendezvous with the command module.

In fact, the landing was quite dramatic. It was unexpectedly drawn out, and the crew had less than 30 seconds of fuel to spare. Armstrong and Aldrin compensated for faulty computer readings and landed safely. After that, I figured walking on the moon was a mere formality — and a somewhat unremarkable one, at that.

Boy, was I wrong.

As I recalled in this blog last year, my family went to our pastor's home to watch the moon walk, and we all shared the big moment when Armstrong spoke his immortal words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." My memory is of our pastor's rather large living room filled with adults and children, none of whom made a sound as they watched Armstrong make his descent down that ladder.

It is a lasting memory, of course. It is a moment I will always remember, not only because of what I witnessed but because of those with whom I shared the moment.

And I also remember the actual landing on the moon, a moment that left Walter Cronkite himself at a loss for words.

That rarely happened with Cronkite, and Americans really seemed to take their cue from "Uncle Walter" at times. When Ted Koppel says, "When Walter rejoiced over man landing on the moon, America rejoiced with him," you can take that to the bank.

Those who saw him, grinning from ear to ear, as two men fulfilled what must have been a boyhood fantasy of his (and countless others) will never forget the scene. Cronkite was devoted to the neutrality of the newsman, but he could hardly be neutral on that day, even without saying much.

Today is also a sad reminder how tragic it is that Cronkite didn't live to see the 40th anniversary of this achievement. I can't help but think that he would have had some unique insights to share. He was always capable of putting every event in the perspective it deserved. And Apollo 11 deserved a lot of attention.

July 20, 1969 was truly an historic day for all Americans — but especially so for the people of Wapakoneta, Ohio. That is the town where Armstrong was born in 1930. On this occasion, Bob Greene reflects on Armstrong's "giant leap from Ohio" at

The summer of '69 was unique. A lot of memorable things happened that summer — the Woodstock festival, the Manson family murders, the Stonewall riots. John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded "Give Peace a Chance" during their famous bed–in. Ted Kennedy's presidential ambitions probably died at Chappaquiddick while Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon, although Kennedy did try to win his party's presidential nomination in 1980.

In fact, the whole year was filled with transitional and noteworthy moments. Richard Nixon became president in January. The man Nixon served as vice president, Dwight Eisenhower, died in March. Charles DeGaulle was replaced as president of France. Charles became the prince of Wales. Joe Namath made good on his "guarantee" that the New York Jets would win the Super Bowl and, later that year, the "Amazin' Mets" won the World Series.

But that summer will always be remembered for the landing on the moon.

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