MIAMI – Early Sunday morning, July 20, 1969. All systems were GO for a landing on the moon. The exquisite space ballet that had gone on since Apollo 11’s launch four days earlier was scheduled to reach a crescendo later that day.
I had walked to the end of my street, 25 miles from Cape Canaveral, and watched the colossal Saturn V lift off that previous Wednesday. For four days, my friends and neighbors – all with family members who worked on Apollo – talked and thought about nothing else. Years of intense work were coming down to this moment.
The moon landing was scheduled for late afternoon, but before that was possible, a precisely choreographed series of maneuvers had to come off perfectly… or else. Walter Cronkite and the other Apollo experts expounded on all the things that could go wrong. If a rocket burned a second too long, Apollo 11 would head into oblivion.
Through the day, executing one hair-raising maneuver after the other, the men and their machine performed every step with a level of precision that is still, 50 years in the future, hard to grasp. The trajectories were calculated with slide rules and primitive computers, and it all worked – stunningly and flawlessly.
These steps had been executed before. Apollo 10 had proved that getting close to the moon was doable. But we all knew that the moon landing was going to require a machine that had not been thoroughly tested to work perfectly… the first time. There was no way to simulate the moon’s one-sixth gravity on earth. There was a lot of calculating and educated-guessing, but we were all going to learn together if this giant space spider named the Eagle really could carry Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. And bring them home.
We were preemptively trying to come to grips with the creepy, ghastly pall that would hang over all of us if these American heroes had to be abandoned to die on the moon. We watched the play-by-play on television with awe and pride that Americans were actually going to try, but we all knew that they were skating on a knife’s edge. It was hard to breathe normally.
The Soviets injected another layer of mystery and anxiety into the second-by-second drama. Earlier that week, newspapers reported that an unmanned spacecraft called Luna 15 was heading to the moon. The speculation was that the Russians were trying beat Apollo 11 back to earth with moon rocks. But there was also the possibility they would jam communications or otherwise foul up the delicate maneuvering required for a moon landing. They wouldn’t do that, would they?
Unbeknownst to us at the time… through a backchannel… at the last minute… the U.S. received assurances there would be no interference.
That Sunday morning earth time, Armstrong and Aldrin squeezed into the cramped lunar lander. By early afternoon, checkout complete, standing shoulder to shoulder, cool as cucumbers, we heard every word as they turned the spidery spacecraft, and tail-first headed for the surface of the moon.
The real drama began about 4:00 PM Eastern Time. The Eagle’s big rocket engine was scheduled to fire. That would slow their descent. At that point, they’d have 12 minutes to maneuver until their fuel tank was dry. On television, over a NASA animation, which was only valid if things went perfectly, a giant digital clock labeled “Time to Lunar Landing” counted it down.
Communications were scratchy at times. But through the static we heard Buzz Aldrin. The big tail engine had fired on time. The big clock was counting – 11 minutes, 10, 9, 8. It’s nerve-wracking to think about, even 50 years later.
Houston was giving them readouts. Aldrin was reporting what they knew. The static was bad. We turned up the TV to hear what they were saying, but it was mostly tech talk with Mission Control that we didn’t understand. Minutes were speeding by, but it was taking forever.
At six and a half minutes out, we hear, “Program alarm 1202… 1202”. It’s Aldrin. Was there stress in his voice? I think so. But they kept going. It must have been nothing.
Then the Eagle wants to know about that alarm. What the heck is a 1202? Maybe it wasn’t normal. Houston says they're working on it.
More alarms, but Houston says, “We’re GO”.
Less than five minutes. All good.
Less than three minutes. Houston says they are GO for landing.
More alarms! A “1201” this time. Then two minutes out, another “1202”. Little did we know, there was a scramble going on in Mission Control to analyze the alarms. The computer was overflowing, prioritizing tasks. Houston made the call. A tough call. We’re GO.
Aldrin is reading out their altitude and speed. We don’t know what it means, but it all sounds good. Suddenly the big clock, which had been off the screen, popped up and said 22 second to landing. Really?
The clock got to zero. They took it off the TV. The Eagle was still flying. Houston said, “60 seconds.” But 60 seconds until what? The animation on TV showed them on the moon, but Aldrin said, “forward, forward”. Later we’d know, Armstrong was looking for a place to land.
They are close. We hear a voice under obvious stress say, “30 seconds.” It has to happen now.
Suddenly we hear, “contact light”. And 22 seconds later, for posterity, “The Eagle has landed.”
The initial calculation was they had 18 seconds of fuel left in the tank when they landed. The countdown we heard was from a guy with a stopwatch in Houston timing them down to the last drop. If we’d known that at the time, our hearts would have beat twice as fast as they already were.
A fearless test pilot, a miracle-maker at the flight controls, Commander Neil Armstrong had done it. He took manual control, found an open spot, and put her down.
It was hard to know how to feel at that moment. We looked at each other unsure that we heard it right. Was it possible? They had actually done it.
The group of us watching the coverage that day were friends whose fathers and husbands worked on the Apollo team and helped make this incredible thing happen. We were immensely proud, of course, but also, we never doubted. If these people that we knew so well said it could be done, we believed it. We believed in them.
Later that evening, we watched Neil Armstrong, a 38-year-old American, step on the moon – live on television. People have criticized, “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind” as not worthy of the moment. Walter Cronkite was less than enthused. But I got it immediately. Yes, it’s not grammatically perfect, but the confusion about the message still rings hollow to me.
The next day, the ugly duckling named Eagle flew perfectly again, and they were on their way home.
We found out later that Russia’s Luna 15 malfunctioned, and crashed some 700 miles from where Armstrong and Aldrin were walking on the moon. And years later we learned that the Russians had tried to launch their version of the Saturn V four times, but those rockets never got far from the launch pad before blowing up.
The Russians couldn’t do it, but the mighty Saturn V never failed. A team of Germans and Americans created one of the greatest machines in the history of man. Even after 50 years, nothing has matched it. Finally, if nothing changes, NASA will launch a worthy replacement next year.
That men and women of the 1960s could pull it off, that America could make it happen, still boggles the mind. The achievement soars in the rarest of air along with the founding of America itself.
It was July 20, 1969. Man walked on the moon. That 50 years later, most Americans couldn’t tell you the date, and some would even doubt it, was inconceivable to the people all over the world who lived it, felt it, and thought the moment was surely seared into forever.
The majesty and the miracle of Apollo has only magnified over these 50 years by the increasing differential in time and tech. Today, we swim in high technology, but rockets still blow up on the launch pad. Yet, the Saturn V flew every time. No human since Apollo has gone higher than low earth orbit, yet in 1969 men went to the moon.
The Apollo program was conceived by John Kennedy as a counter to the communist ethos that projected strength and technical superiority. And Kennedy was right. Every informed person in the world today knows that the United States, despite its faults and political polarization, is the only nation with the guts and resolve to see it through.
As we look at the moon this week, remember and reflect. Fifty years ago this week, we were there. And to this day, the only footprints on the moon are American.