Fifty years ago this evening, I gathered with my parents and three siblings in our cozy den in our suburban Cleveland home and watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin slowly descend the steps from Eagle and take mankind’s first-ever steps on the moon.
Wednesday night, I saw them do it again on a PBS special about that moon landing, As I watched, I was struck by the raw emotion of that historic night, as if even the human beings who had made this happen couldn’t quite believe what they had done.
Crews at the Houston Space Center chewed on pencils as they waited nervously for the landing. Barely breathing, they watched as the Eagle descended. At last, when the Eagle was safely down, they all exhaled and resumed breathing. Grins broke out.
CBS news veteran Walter Cronkite took off his glasses when the lunar module landed safely. He wiped his eyes and asked Americans to take a moment of silence to reflect on what was perhaps mankind’s most profound accomplishment.
CBS’s Eric Sevareid, such a master at commentary, struggled for words. Faces from around the globe stared at tiny TV screens (by today’s standards) to watch the landing. The feat united all of us on earth, however briefly. Before the lunar module landed, astronaut Buzz Aldrin partook of Communion elements he had brought from his church back home.
It was such a stunning feat that for a moment, we Americans rose above all the negatives nipping at our heels, ugly stuff like race riots, anti-war protests, the shootings of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the year before. The boisterous antics at Woodstock would follow a few weeks later, and the next spring, National Guard troops would kill four students at Kent State University.
But on July 20, 1969, for a spectacular moment, it was as if God held up a mirror and showed us how much humans could accomplish by working together.
My late cousin Jenny Nickell spent her career in television production. Some years later, after a big dinner in Phoenix, she stood outside the hotel with a former astronaut who had orbited the earth. He looked up at the stars and the gleaming moon that night and talked about being in space. Jenny never forgot that. “He’d been up there,” she said in awe as she told us about it. Her mind kept grappling with it. Her head collected the facts, but her heart buzzed around trying to grasp it. We are earthly beings, after all.
Watching the PBS special Wednesday, I saw how the entire world watched that moon landing live. We had just three TV networks back then; there was no CNN or ESPN or HGTV or home-shopping networks. There were three TV networks, and they all pooled their coverage that night and everyone watched.
I also saw how brutally frank the U.S. was in broadcasting that landing live. We had faith in NASA and faith in the astronauts, but if it failed, the world would watch that failure in tragic clarity. As the Eagle descended toward the moon surface, tiny numbers on the TV screen told us that they had 60 seconds to land or abort, then 20 seconds to land. Everything had to work flawlessly, and it did.
Back then, we believed in that perfection. I don’t recall being nervous about the success of the lunar mission. Perhaps it was my youth, but the U.S. space program had few gaffes — that fire that killed three astronauts as they trained notwithstanding — and I believed it would work flawlessly. By then, the nation’s faith in itself was wobbling, weakened by war protests and college riots and racial strife, but our core belief in ourselves remained unshakable. Our accomplishment on July 20, 1969, was proof.
We reached for the stars, and we touched them.