How the Moon Was Won on July 20, 1969, Mankind Took Its Biggest Leap of All

By Rosenthal, Harry F. | The Florida Times Union, July 18, 1999 | Go to article overview

How the Moon Was Won on July 20, 1969, Mankind Took Its Biggest Leap of All


Rosenthal, Harry F., The Florida Times Union


WASHINGTON -- Near the equator of the moon -- for all eternity or until a passing piece of space junk scores a bull's-eye -- stands a strange platform swaddled in gold foil, a monument to the most daring of the 20th century's scientific expeditions.

Around it, footprints are etched in the talcumlike dust, also as permanent as anything in the violent, changing universe can be permanent. The prints are the unmistakable evidence that two men from Earth walked there, the first humans to step on soil beyond their own planet.

It has been 30 years since Neil Armstrong and Edwin A. Aldrin climbed gingerly from their Apollo 11 moon lander to the rock-strewn surface of the Sea of Tranquility.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," said Armstrong, the first man on the moon. It was supposed to be "a man," but that didn't make it to a billion people watching on television back on Earth. Purists have argued about the difference in meaning ever since.

What made that first landing, on July 20, 1969, such a big event -- one of those moments that no one then alive would ever forget? For Americans, it provided uplift and respite from the Vietnam War, from strife in the Middle East, from the startling news just two days earlier that a young woman had drowned in a car driven off a wooden bridge on Chappaquiddick Island by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

The rest of the world celebrated along with America. More than 100 world leaders sent their congratulations.

It also marked America's victory in the Cold War space race that began Oct. 4, 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1, a 184-pound ball whose insistent beeps sent shock waves around the world. An embarrassed United States didn't launch its first satellite until four months later and remained behind in the spectaculars that followed: First human space flight, first human to orbit the Earth, first spacewalk.

But beyond that was this: Throughout recorded history, humans had wondered about alien worlds, especially the one biggest and nearest with the unchanging face. The moon was celebrated in poetry and song, in folklore and love stories, in mysteries and nursery rhymes. Even the ancients knew that it controls the ocean's tides as it makes its 27.3-day circuit around Earth, and they made it the basis for man's calendars. It is reflected in language with words such as lunatic and moonshine. Now, two men, each with an American flag on his left sleeve, were standing on it.

It is difficult today after a generation of uneventful ventures in space, manned and unmanned, to re-create the excitement that accompanied the flight of Apollo 11.

Armstrong released a TV camera as he stepped out of the ship, and the world watched as two men dressed like Pillsbury doughboys loped around the bleak surface, exulting in the lightness of their one-sixth gravity. They picked up rocks, the booty they had come for, and planted an American flag stiffened into waving position because there is no air or wind on the moon to ruffle it.

A third astronaut, Michael Collins, circled the moon in the mother ship "Columbia" 60 miles overhead as Armstrong and Aldrin landed. His back seat to history was confirmed then and there.

When Houston sent word that Mission Control was full of smiling faces, Armstrong responded with "there are two of them up here." Collins chimed in with "and don't forget one in the command module."

Collins wrote later about seeing their target up close: "The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional, small disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen. To begin with, it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three-dimensional."

The intricate plan for the flight worked nearly flawlessly, although they had only 15 seconds of fuel left after dodging surface boulders on arrival. …

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