July 15, 2013
Only in TV film clips years after the event did I see the late President Kennedy give his famous 1961 challenge to Congress, America and the world:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
We were more inclined to believe what our presidents told us back in those more innocent times, but when Kennedy said we were going to the moon, that gave folks pause.
At that time “outer” space, as they called it, was so far out of reach. And traveling to the moon was as improbable then as putting everybody in hydrogen-powered cars would be today.
Kennedy’s pronouncement sounded like something from science fiction. So most folks at the time took a wait-and-see attitude.
Humankind’s first space rocket had been fired less than four years before Kennedy’s challenge. The first human in space had occurred just one month prior. Space travel was still in diapers. No one was ready to try to fly to the moon.
I think back to how space had been depicted in science fiction. In a famous “Superman” TV program in 1953, for a scene of the earth viewed from space they could only show a globe, and not a very good globe at that. There were no pictures of the Earth because nothing had gone up into space yet. No one had any idea how the earth or anything else looked in space.
“Lost In Space,” a 1965-68 TV show that is shown in reruns on Saturday nights on a Triad station, used photos of stars taken by a telescope in California to depict space. The show dated its fictional space flight to the nearest star in the year 1997. They were a little off.
“Star Trek,” a 1966-69 TV show also shown now in Saturday night reruns, depicted space with models of planets like in a science fair.
We were so ignorant of space back then, and that made it hard for folks to believe we could actually send someone to the moon. The trial-run space flights around the earth in the mid-1960s were impressive, but even the frequent TV and newspaper reports of them were unconvincing that a moon trip was possible.
The breakthrough came in December 1968 when Apollo 8 took the first round trip to the moon and back. On Christmas Eve they turned on a TV camera showing the Earth hanging in the black of space, and the astronauts read from Genesis 1.
That wasn’t Star Trek we were watching any more. It ignited peoples’ attentions.
In 1969 my parents were expecting guests from out of state when Apollo 11 blasted off from Florida and headed for the first landing on the moon. The launch was televised live by two networks available on our over-the-air television here in the hometown.
An old Army buddy of Dad’s was coming from Kentucky with his wife. Dad and Mr. Vaughn had lost contact since the end of World War II until the year prior when Mr. Vaughn got Dad’s phone number from information and called Dad out of the blue.
During the Chatham mill vacation week we were going to take the Vaughns on their first trip to Myrtle Beach.
But we put off the beach trip for one day in order to watch on TV the first landing on the moon, on July 20.
The Apollo landing was broadcast live during prime time. It was the TV show of all TV shows. An estimated 600 million around the world watched – unprecedented for the time.
My parents, the Vaughns and me watched silently, for the most part, in our living room.
Normally for news we watched the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” nightly news program at 6:30 p.m. weeknight on NBC that was broadcast from Winston. But on this special night for some reason we tuned to the CBS broadcast out of Charlotte with Walter Cronkite. Good choice. It’s clips of the Cronkite broadcast that they always replay at this time of year.
The Apollo 11 show lasted all evening. The process was laborious. Cronkite and astronaut Wally Schirra and guests talked and talked and explained this and that while waiting for news from Mission Control in Houston.
During the descent of the lunar lander they suddenly cut on the TV camera. Cronkite and Schirra seemed as puzzled as we were here at home by the grainy black-and-white pictures that showed the landing craft’s shadow on the moon as it touched down.
The five of us at home saw the famous scene of Cronkite taking off his horn-rimed reading glasses, wiping his eyes and exclaiming, “whew … boy!”
Sitting in our living room, Mrs. Vaughn commented, “Isn’t this something!” The rest of us gave silent assent.
Then the TV broadcast switched to the camera viewing the lander’s ladder, and we watched Neil Armstrong climb down. Neither we nor Cronkite seemed to know for sure which little hop by Armstrong was the big one, the first step on the moon. The camera sadly did not have Armstrong’s feet in view.
But then came the audio, “One small step for man …” We didn’t hear the “a” man, and they’re still debating today whether Armstrong actually said the “a.”
And the five of us at home sat mesmerized. I don’t think one of us said a word.
The most fascinating television in my lifetime was not science fiction. It was the real thing. And it happened in my living room 44 years ago this week. Whew. Boy.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.