Fifty years ago today (July 11, 1969), three men were making final preparations for the most incredible journey of their lives.
In just five days, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin would leave the third planet from the sun, which they shared with about 3.686 billion other people, to travel to our closest heavenly orb about 240,000 miles away
It is interesting that the moon-focused Apollo program brought about such earth-changing items as Velcro and freeze-dried foods, but the truly amazing thing is that a goal was set -- a seemingly unreachable one, and thousands of people worked together to make it happen. Back on earth, an estimated 500-600 million people watched and listened as mortals like us set foot on the moon, and then, perhaps even more remarkably, returned to Mother Earth, splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean after a 953,054-mile, eight-day journey.
Fifty years later, we celebrate the anniversary. My recollection of the event is still clear, but I am curious about what others recall. I asked a few friends at coffee what they remember about the day.
Mary Lou Brandvik remembers being in the car with husband, Paul, and young daughter, Ahna, as they drove north from town toward Lake Beltrami, looking at the moon and listening to the broadcast. “We stopped to get out and look at the moon,” she recalls. And they stood, staring up at this familiar moon with new eyes. “To think there is a man walking there!”
Linda Phillips recalls spending the better part of the day watching coverage of the moon-landing on TV with a friend. “I remembered Kennedy making the statement about putting a man on the moon, and on that day, we were watching it happen.” It was remarkable, miraculous -- a promise fulfilled six years after President John F. Kennedy was killed.
Kennedy had proposed the goal to Congress in May 1961: To land a man on the moon and bring him safely home -- within the decade. In September 1962, his famous speech at Rice University in Texas made the lofty goal sound bold and adventuresome, if not noble:
“But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? ...We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
I was just nine years old when Kennedy made the speech but vaguely recall some of the reactions of adults around me, concerned about priorities and cost. The next year, my fifth-grade class was interrupted one November afternoon with horrifying news: “President Kennedy has been shot,” and I experienced my first national tragedy. For days we were drawn by the news reports, the repeated details. We grieved collectively, shocked by one man’s death; stunned by another man’s violence.
Six years later, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. I was 16, working my summer job at the Dairy Queen in St. Peter, Minn. When I got off work, I drove home in my dad’s old white Dodge, listening to the radio broadcast and staring up at the full moon. “My God! There are men walking up there!” I thought, and I was filled with a unique and awesome feeling. Somehow the smallness and insignificance I often felt when looking up at a star-stippled sky was replaced by a feeling of oneness. By leaving earth, it seemed, these three men had brought hundreds of millions of us together -- watching and listening, not like a national tragedy, but in an uplifting and inspirational way.
My drive took less than 10 minutes, but when I got home, I didn’t want to shut the radio off. Instead, I just opened the car door, focused on the magnificent moon, and squinted at it, as if by some chance I might actually see men in Teflon-coated suits walking there.
On that warm, clear night in July 1969, men walked on the moon while millions of people watched and listened in fascination and awe -- and I was one of them.