It was a night to remember.
The anticipation had been building for days, weeks. Like millions of others on the night of July 20, 1969, I sat nervously, my eyes glued on the television. A whirl of emotions — my friend and I were mesmerized, excited, both disbelieving and believing what was happening. It was surreal. The United States was poised to win the space race with the Soviet Union. The lunar module Eagle had landed on the moon.
We watched rapt and attentive, and also teary-eyed and proud.
It was nearly 11 p.m. East Coast time when Neil Armstrong stepped out and off of The Eagle, then planted himself on the surface of the moon where he proclaimed words that resonate half-a-century later, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
2 hours, 14 minutes
Minutes later, at 11:11, Armstrong was joined by Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. For 2 hours and 14 minutes they, as described in the April 21 issue of The Washington Post, "walked easily, talked easily, even ran and jumped happily so it seemed. They picked up rocks, talked at length of what they saw, planted an American flag, saluted it, and talked by radiophone with the President in the White House, and then faced the camera and saluted Mr. Nixon."
A smaller front page story that day seems frighteningly relevant now. The story was headlined, "Millions Follow Astronauts' Landing Around the World, Except in China." Then, as now, Communist rulers withheld news from being made public. But the censorship wasn't only in China. In the Soviet Union, when the Voice of America began broadcasting the news, "the frequencies were jammed."
At the time, what happened in Russia and China seemed insignificant. What mattered that night was what was happening, very live and very real. Long before Michael Jackson's moonwalk, Aldrin and Armstrong's moon walk was an exploration into the unknown on the surface of a place that had never been walked on in the 2 million year history of mankind.
Because I was living in Washington, D.C., just four blocks from Capitol Hill and within walking distance of the Navy Yard, where I was stationed as a Navy journalist, the excitement rallied the entire city. And because I was curious to see and preserve the landing, I scrambled to newsstands and bought newspapers from around the U.S. and world, all with screaming headlines, most in all capital letters. Those papers have moved with me, but had settled forgotten in my basement. But they're forgotten no more. As some of the front pages shouted:
"WE'RE ON THE MOON" — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"MAN WALKS ON MOON" — The Scranton Tribune
"THEY DID IT!" — The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and, as a special supplement declared, "JULY 20, 1969 — MAN'S MOST EXCITING DAY!"
"MAN ON MOON" — The Toronto Globe and Mail
"A GIANT LEAP — Man Romps on the Moon" — The Fort Lauderdale News
"Americans Walk on Moon: Lunar Takeoff Successful" — The Denver Post
"Moon Men Blast Off: Astronauts Begin Long Voyage Home" — The Milwaukee Journal
"AMERICANS ON MOON!" — Chicago Tribune
"THE WALK INTO HISTORY" — San Jose News
I never have translated the headlines from three French newspapers:
"LE LEM A DECOLLE PARAFAITEMENT" - L'Aurore
"ILS ONT DECOLLE DE LA LUNE; Armstrong et Aldrin ont arrache le LM du sol lunaire pour rejoindre Collins dans la capsule Apollo 11," — France Soir, special edition
"APOLLO XI: ET MAINTENANT DESTINATION TERRE" — Le Figaro
For days the headlines continued. Follow-up stories from the Washington Post included, "Apollo Sets Course For Home After Perfect Lunar Takeoff" on July 22. "Astronauts Return Home From Moon After 'Greatest Week in History' " on July 25. "Footsteps on the Moon" on July 30, with a color photo of an American flag on the moon's surface. "The Man From Earth" on Aug. 2, with the iconic photo of Aldrin, wearing a helmet with his visor reflecting Tranquility Base (the name given the landing site), Armstrong and the Eagle.
Somewhere I picked up a July 25 Kansas City Star, a commemorative edition with the headline, "TO THE MOON ... AND HOME." It's stuffed with headlines from the build-up to the launch, landing and the capsule's retrieval. Stories and photos of the wildly smiling and relieved wives of Armstrong, Aldrin and Mike "Buzz" Collins, the often overlooked Apollo 11 command module pilot.
There was good news, as a headline declared, "Moon Feat Brings Lull in Police Calls." There was more: detailed explanations and maps of the flight plan; a photo of Nixon speaking to moonwalkers Aldrin and Armstrong; a full page "Apollo Moon Landing Guide"; a word-by-word transcript of the conversation between Mission Control and Tranquility Base and Armstrong and Aldrin.
It was an exciting time of hope and optimism, overplaying other headlines and stories that told, for example, about Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy being charged in the automobile accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and, of course, the escalating war in Vietnam.
Several days later, the astronauts were greeted with ceremonies, speeches and tributes at the Capitol, and, because it was just down the block and because it was history that was happening and was worth celebrating, I joined the throng of thousands who cheered and basked in the joy of seeing the three heroes. The memory is something I cherish because there aren't many times when it's possible to witness and to be a part of historic events, when there's an opportunity see and participate in history as it happens.
That was one of those rare times, and I was in the right place.
Where were you?