There are few dates so momentous that they plant themselves into our collective memories forever. Those events are so powerful that we remember exactly where we were and who we were with at the time.
I was on the playground at Cottonwood Elementary School when we found out that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I was in a meeting in Rocky Mount, North Carolina when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.
It is easier to remember the dates that were catastrophic, but there are also dates that join us together in a positive way. For people my age, July 20, 1969 is one of those dates. 50 years ago this week, the first humans landed on the moon as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar mission.
It is hard to fathom how important this event was to the citizens of the United States five decades ago. The USA had been humiliated by Russia’s early space success. President Kennedy’s call to action in pledging to put an American on the moon captivated the nation and resulted in one of the greatest success stories in American technology.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had the honor of taking the first steps on the moon. Michael Collins was the command module pilot, an equally courageous astronaut, though less well known a half century later.
This was not like some of the other great technological advances hidden in a remote research institution. Everyone had some connection to the moon. We grew up hearing nursery rhymes such as “I see the moon and the moon sees me”. Countless youngsters found early romance under the light of a moonlit sky. The moon is both mystical and magical.
More songs than we can imagine have lyrics about the moon. Who can forget “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra or “Moon River” by Andy Williams? Cat Stevens sang “Moon Shadow” during my high school years. Other songs about the moon were performed by a long list of great artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Glen Campbell, The Doors and Glenn Miller. Believe me when I say the list is much, much longer.
The man in the moon fascinated me from an early age. It was obviously visible during a full moon on a clear night. It wasn’t until I saw the moon with my future wife that I became aware there is also a rabbit on the moon. A half century later it remains a conflict in my brain. I see both the man and the rabbit, but never at the same time.
600 million people around the world watched the moon landing on the July 20, 1969. I watched it with my great childhood friend, Jimmy Hughes, at Compass Lake. We laid back on the cool linoleum floor that hot Summer night. The television was black and white. We were both mesmerized.
Later, Jimmy and I walked out on the dock and looked up at the moon that was clearly visible. Are they really up there? Is it possible? It was a moment of great pride even for two American teenagers.
Fifty years later we celebrate this great achievement of American technology, commitment and resolve. NASA has recreated the original Mission Control as part of a museum. Space travel has renewed interest with some companies even planning trips for wealthy individuals.
At 4:18 EDT on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong reported back to Mission Control that “The Eagle has landed” as the lunar module landed on the moon’s surface at the Sea of Tranquility. A little known fact is that the lunar module had less than 40 seconds of fuel left.
Less than six hours later Armstrong took his small step for man and giant leap for mankind. 50 years later, Armstrong and Aldrin remain two of only 12 men to step foot on the moon.
It is hard not to be captivated by the American ingenuity that put two Americans on the moon in such a short period of time. At one point, over 400,000 Americans were working on the project to put a man on the moon. They succeeded, one and all.
Yet, as I reflect on that day 50 years ago, I cannot help but think about my great friend, Jimmy Hughes, and our wonder and amazement of what had just been accomplished. Jimmy passed away a few years ago. As I reflect on this amazing anniversary, I realize Jimmy’s view of the moon from heaven must be even more spectacular than it was from Compass Lake 50 years ago.
Science. Faith. Friendship. Mystery. It is all so complicated. Perhaps Armstrong’s simple words, “The Eagle has landed” is enough. I take comfort in the certainty that Jimmy has landed too.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]