In honor of the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, writer Ed Higgins shares his memories of the space event of a lifetime. Plus, check out the TV footage from July 20, 1969!
The Apollo 11 Moon Landing Anniversary: Memories Of A Lifetime
As the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing approaches, it struck me that the first decade of my life—some of the most formative years of any child’s life—fell during our quest to land the first human beings on the Moon. Maybe that’s why the space program has always fascinated me.
Most of my earliest memories are of the Mercury Program astronauts. You may know them as the “Right Stuff” guys, from the movie of the same name. Seven crew-cuts, test pilots with lantern jaws who were not only tough and competent heroes with nerves of steel, but who were great on TV, like pop stars. The Mercury 7 were irreverent, slyly funny, highly competitive, and patriotic. My friends and I looked up to them with unabashed admiration. I can still recite all their names, the way we could for baseball players: Shepard, Cooper, Carpenter, Glenn, Schirra, Slayton, Grissom. When Wally Schirra visited my middle school and I got to shake his hand, I thought I would burst with pride. When Gus Grissom died tragically in the Apollo 1 fire, along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee, it was like losing a family member.
Kids of my age also followed the astronauts from subsequent and earlier programs once “space fever” struck. We understood that Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 was a big deal. And we knew that the Gemini missions were getting us ready for Apollo, to fulfill President Kennedy’s promise to send a man to the Moon before the end of the decade of the 1960s.
I built plastic models of every rocket ship from the Mercury Redstone to the Saturn V. I read voraciously about traveling at Mach speeds, learning about the important X-15 Rocket plane missions, when NASA used to be called NACA (National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics). By the time the Apollo mission was back on track after the Apollo 1 tragedy, I was a full-fledged space groupie. While the Apollo 8 mission was underway, I used my plastic models to demonstrate to my family how the astronauts had to dock the spacecraft for lunar insertion orbit.
The Apollo 11 Mission
Finally, the Apollo 11 mission came. This was it. The launch was July 16, 1969. And even though I was only eight years old, I felt like I knew what was at stake. I understood how scary it was to have radio contact go dead when the astronauts were behind the Moon. Or how precise the burns of the engines had to be so they could be flung from Earth’s orbit to the 238,900 miles of the lunar orbit. I marveled at how a 6.5 million pound rocket, taller than the Statue of Liberty, went from its stately perch atop Pad 39A, rising on a controlled explosion of pressurized liquid propellants, taking it from zero to 4,000 feet per second before the booster stage detached, to more than 23,000 miles per hour.
The Moon Landing
With Mike Collins orbiting the Moon in the Columbia command module, the Lunar Lander (or Lunar Excursion Module, LEM), the “Eagle,” touched down on the surface of Earth’s Moon on July 20 at 4:17 p.m. EDT. Commander Neil Armstrong reported, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”
And this young boy’s heart soared along with almost every living person on our planet. I watched the landing on a 16” black and white TV with my family while vacationing at the Jersey Shore. It was going to be a while between the landing and the astronauts exiting the LEM, so my younger sister and I caught a couple of hours of sleep that night but our Dad woke us up so we could see Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface just before 11 p.m. At the time it was tough to process the famous phrase, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.” Suffice it to say that my eight-year-old mind was blown. I was living the adventure along with Collins, Aldrin, and Armstrong. Thanks to television, we all were.
The American Flag
We learned that the Eagle had landed on a few inches of fine powder—as fine as talcum powder—and the landing engine had blown much of it away, revealing bare rock. When they tried to set up the American flag, the regolith was not deep enough to support the flagpole. They tried hammering it in and eventually had to find a place where they could wedge it deeper into the ground. One phrase that stuck with me was Buzz Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation,” when describing what he saw. It made the Moon feel quiet, lonely, and really far away. For the first time, there was life on the Moon. And it was us.
The astronauts were on the Moon for only a couple of hours that day. And we would return in Apollo 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17. A total of 12 men have walked on the Moon, all from the Apollo missions. And speaking as a man who was a boy during those missions, I am grateful for the space program that allowed us to walk the rocky, powdery surface of our nearest celestial neighbor along with those dozen astronauts, even if only in our imaginations. They are memories that will last a lifetime.
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Edward Higgins is a freelance writer, artist, home chef, and avid fly fisherman who lives outside of Portland, Maine. He studied at Skidmore College and Harvard University. His article 10 Best Edible Insects appears in the 2020 Farmers' Almanac.