Gronvold: One small step
July 20th marked 47 years since Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon and uttered history’s most iconic utterance: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. I don’t know which is more surprising: That it’s been almost a half century since the event, or that Mr. Armstrong’s famous phrase would be considered politically insensitive in today’s gender-neutral society. Reports that he actually said, “Hot damn, Ethel Mae, we sure ’nuff did it!” are incorrect.
Those of us who have lived to tell about it remember where we were during personkind’s very first pre-Michael Jackson Moon walk. In 1969 I was 21 and attending an ROTC summer camp at Fort Bragg, NC prior to my senior year at “the U”. I lived in a two-story barracks with 60 other cadets training to become second lieutenants upon graduation. I would get passes to go to Fayetteville and spend my weekends sleeping, eating and sleeping at a Horne’s Motor Lodge. Horne’s had absolutely the most delicious Southern pecan pie, bless their pea-pickin’ hearts.
We were on a 5-day, 4-night field training exercise when the Apollo 11 mission began at Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, July 16th at 7:32 a.m. (Rugby time). An estimated one million Florida tourists and residents scrunched cheek-to-jowl to observe the legendary launch. My parents watched it, shortly after liftoff, from their condo complex in Orlando, some 50 miles away.
The bright glow from a Saturn V rocket can be clearly seen, even in daylight. A night launch is much more spectacular. On one moonless Friday night in November, 2008, the football game I was covering was temporarily halted so that we could watch the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s 8 p.m. launch. It was the 124th launch of 135 in the shuttle program’s 30-year history.
The late Walter Cronkite anchored CBS-TV’s coverage of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. Mr. Cronkite had gently broken the news to us about President Kennedy’s death in 1963. Now, less than six years later, Cronkite was chronicling the culmination of JFK’s 1961 challenge to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
The Apollo 11 command module (“Columbia”) entered lunar orbit on Saturday, July 19th and the world held its breath as the Columbia disappeared behind the dark side of the Moon and communication was lost. While they were behind the celestial 8-ball, the three astronauts could not tell Houston if there was a problem. When they emerged and reestablished radio contact, you could hear the relief in NASA Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) Charlie Duke’s voice. Duke would become the 10th and youngest person to walk on the moon during 1972’s Apollo 16 mission.
As the landing module “Eagle” descended to the lunar surface, this was uncharted territory in1969. Would the Eagle crash into a crater? Would Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin sink up to their hips in green cheese? Would one of them whip out a golf club and ball to experience the first Moon Mulligan in galaxy golf history? (Actually, the late Alan Shepard did it on the Apollo 14 mission in 1971). Would the lunar lander launch them successfully from the Moon’s surface to rejoin fellow astronaut Michael Collins who had been idling patiently at the cosmic curb with the meter running in the Columbia? We held our collective breath.
When Armstrong radioed “The Eagle has landed” at 3:17 p.m. Sunday July 20th, we exhaled. The plan was for Armstrong and Aldrin to have a five-hour rest period prior to preparations for personkind’s first footsteps on the mysterious Moon. Right. Armstrong was chomping at the bit and couldn’t wait to get underway. First-term President Richard Nixon didn’t mind that the most important part of the mission would now be aired in Sunday prime time. Armstrong’s left foot left the Eagle’s ladder and landed on the lunar surface at 9:56 p.m. Sunday night, followed by his “One small step” line.
Unfortunately, I missed seeing the lunar walk live and in black and white. After Cronkite said that Armstrong and Aldrin would rest and then exit the Eagle just after midnight, I had decided to take a nap until about 11 p.m. When I awoke and turned on the TV, there was a live shot of the Eagle from a camera that apparently had been placed on the Moon’s surface a few yards away. “How did that get there?” I wondered. Then it dawned on me that I had slept through the most important event of the 20th century. Fortunately, Horne’s room service was still available and I consoled myself with a double order of pecan pie.
Gronvold is a parade-shy 1966 RHS graduate.
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