By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
The date was July 20, 1969, at 3:17 P.M. EST when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in Mare Tranquillitatis. “Tranquility down,” Buzz radioed to Houston. It was the first time in history humans had ever been on the moon, and these were the first words to be radioed from the moon surface. The world was watching when Mission Control radioed back “Roger, we copy you down. We got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot!”
My parents told me that the moon walk was scheduled for the next day, July 21, after spending the night on the surface. Today, NASA states that the moon walk had always been scheduled to occur four hours after the lunar landing, but something must have gone wrong as it actually occurred about eight hours hence. It’s sad, because in my mind, I always pictured Niel Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin getting anxious about the landing. I would imagine Niel radioing mission control and saying, “there’s no way we’ll be able to sleep up here. We’re walking…what are you gonna do about it?” Of course, the more I learn about him, the more I realize that he was a well-disciplined military man who always followed orders, but, sadly, this kind of detracts from my overly romanticized imagination of the night’s events.
I recall the night well. I was six…but I remember. My parents had put my sister and me to bed that night. I couldn’t tell you the time, but eventually they came and woke the two of us up so we could watch the moon walk live.
The family television was an old black and white, maybe 10 inch screen, that ran on vacuum tubes. Maybe many of them were at that time (the color revolution really began four years earlier, in 1965, when half of the networks announced they would be broadcasting in color), but my dad coaxed far more life out of this one than you could imagine, but that had nothing to do with that night. The television electronics always generated an inordinate amount of heat, and always produced that smell of ozone and burning dust. We huddled around it in the family room.
Well, most of us did. I was a space nut, but my sister really couldn’t care less. There was a lot of discussion and, basically, time filler as the astronauts completed the final preparations. I became impatient, but wouldn’t dare walk away. My sister, on the other hand, went back to bed. Well, it wasn’t for everybody, I guess.
But for those of us that stuck with it, the time finally arrived. At 10:56 P.M. EST, with the television screen glued to a NASA logo, we heard Niel Armstrong describe his descent down the lunar lander ladder, and finally utter those infamous words “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (although he claimed that part of the statement was lost to static).
I distinctly recall getting upset because all we heard were the words. There was no picture…just that NASA logo! My father had to explain to me that there could be no picture, because there was nobody on the moon before Niel to…ready for your mind to be blown…set up the camera! If the camera had been set up, then Niel would have been the second man on the moon (and Buzz the third), after the technician that set up the camera equipment.
The irony is that, today, you find a lot of video of an astronaut descending the ladder, with the soundtrack of Niel and his quote. It seems like a lot of people have bought into the idea that it was Niel descending the ladder. If fact, it is Buzz that you see stepping onto the moon (the first human to be filmed stepping onto the moon), but Niel’s voice. Well, I was six at the time. What’s YOUR excuse?
Today, January 3, 2019, the Chinese landed a robotic lunar rover on the far side of the moon. As I understand it, this is the first lunar landing since 1972 (the final Apollo mission), and the first to the far side of the moon. Over 45 years later, the long dormant moon race has re awoken. America did her bit, and we may return, but for now I wish the Chinese government and their space program the best of luck. I’ll be watching with the same enthusiasm I had half a century ago.