Saturday will mark 50 years since the first person set foot on the Moon. That was the same year that the Beatles last performed live together on the rooftop of Apple Records in England. That year also marked the first Concorde jet’s test flight in France and the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made its debut. It was also the year 350,000 rock-n-roll fans poured into the Woodstock outdoor concert in New York.
According to The People History in 1969:
• The average cost of a new house was $15,550.
• The average income per year was $8,550.
• Average monthly rent was $135.
• A Toyota Corona was $1,950.
• Gas was 35 cents per gallon.
Additionally, 1969 was the year my family made our way from the tiny island of Guam to San Diego aboard a freighter/passenger ship, the Taiwan-based Oriental Pearl. Though we certainly didn’t make the news, it was memorable for our family of six because we were on board that ship the night of July 20 when those courageous folks touched down on the lunar surface.
We had set off from Yokohama, Japan, and were in the middle of a 21-day journey across the Pacific, where the cast of stars and planets and the moon were ablaze like a cache of jewels scattered over the night skies like no other place any of us had ever seen.
At 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, a huge slice of the world’s population watched Apollo 11 take off from Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins aboard. The mission came years after President John Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
An estimated 530 million people watched the event live on television. After traveling 76 hours, Apollo 11 made its way into the lunar orbit on July 19. At 1:46 p.m. the next day, the lunar module Eagle, manned by Armstrong and Aldrin, broke free from the command module, where Collins stayed behind to hold down the fort aboard Apollo 11. Two hours later, the Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface, and at 4:17 p.m. the craft touched down on the edge of the Sea of Tranquility. That’s when Armstrong radioed to Mission Control in Houston: “The Eagle has landed.”
As the news streaked across a TV while we were aboard the Oriental Pearl, people raced outdoors to stare at the moon, like we’d be able to spot the astronauts landing 238,855 miles away. My dad said, “Can you imagine? Right now there are people walking around on that thing?” as he pointed toward the glowing moon. That moment froze in my 15-year-old mind.
The images still run through my skull — the photographs of footprints in the moon soil, the outstretched American flag, the astronauts posing for photos with the moon’s curving horizon unfolding behind them.
I still can’t fathom how those men drummed up the courage and the right frame of mind to crawl into that spacecraft, cram into their clumsy spacesuits and buzz off far into space to land on some cold, unexplored rock. Claustrophobia alone would have sent me into a major meltdown while still on the launchpad. I can’t even venture too far into my closet before thousands of volts of panic messages flood my head and I turn into a worthless terrified infant. Just the notion that I couldn’t get out of the space capsule and go for a brief walk in the fresh air to cool off would be enough to collapse any sense of my becoming an astronaut. I’m already a very poor commercial airline passenger.
Aldrin and Armstrong conducted a bunch of tests, took photos and were back inside the Eagle in about 2 hours and 15 minutes. That was it. They spent the night there and then blasted off about 12 hours later to rejoin Collins at the command module, but not before leaving several items behind, including a plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon — July 1969 A.D. — We came in peace for all mankind.” Ironically, back on Earth, the U.S. was still deeply engaged in the Vietnam War.
In all, 12 astronauts have walked on the Moon. Six of those drove the Lunar Roving Vehicles. The nine Apollo missions to the Moon took place between December 1968 and December 1972. Apollo 10 was a mission to have men circle the moon as a dry run for Apollo 11’s landing.
I’m confident that one day we will return to the moon and shortly thereafter, right next to that memorialized plaque, we’ll see the opening of the first lunar Starbucks. People will take selfies with their smartphones with a latte in hand while someone on a beach in Miami will glimpse the photo on their phone and say, “Look son, that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for grandma.”