(I posted this a couple of weeks ago, but forgot to put a title - it sank without trace. Forgive the repeat)
There will be a lot of Moon Landing stuff in the press and media in the next couple of months - it’s 40 years since that first “small step” – the anniversary is on July 20th.
So, like I’ve done in the past (for example this post regarding the transit of Venus in 2004, which I posted 3 months early), I thought I would get my 40th Anniversary post in before anyone else.
This is it, then: The Apollo Moon Landing- the Part I played in the Whole Thing.
Growing up in the sixties in England, for people of my age and nationality, there were maybe two great events in that decade that stand out as truly unforgettable . Winning the World Cup in 1966 was one, and the Apollo Moon Landing was the other. For the Football triumph, I was a few days short of my twelfth birthday; and for the Moon, just a few days short of my fifteenth. I’m lucky really, I don’t think there could have been a better age to be to experience either of them.
As background, I grew up utterly fascinated with Astronomy in general, (as you’ll know if you clicked that Venus post) and the unfolding Space Race in particular. Looking back on it now, an intelligent, young kid with a passion for learning and a bent towards the sciences was never going to last a lifetime in the JW religion - and sure enough, I was out by my early twenties. But while I was in – all through my teens – I managed somehow to be both a good Witness (pioneering, platform/assembly parts, Ministerial Servant etc. etc) while also being a huge enthusiast for the American Space Programme.
I couldn’t get enough of that NASA stuff. I would endlessly scour he newsagents and bookstores for space magazines and technical books; I followed every broadcast on tv and radio.. I even kept a cuttings scrap-book of every bit of press coverage I could find. Strange really, a kid who could act so ridiculous, “spiritual” and self-righteous as this at the Wembley International Assembly, could also be such a passionate devotee of something as scientific, secular, indeed arguably anti-religious, as the Apollo moon-shot effort.
That Wembley Assembly, by the way, occurred just the very next week after the moon landing itself - and two weeks after that would come the Woodstock festival, the very epitome of the sixties culture. Remarkable times.
Anyway, Apollo 11 took off on July 16th 1969 – a Wednesday. I watched it on the news when I got home from school. We had just broken-up for the summer. Seven weeks of sunny, care-free, school-free happiness. Seven, fabulous, long weeks that were going to last forever, but, of course, were over in a flash. But no school meant late nights watching all the moon-shot special programming.
I remember in particular the then BBC science correspondent Peter Fairey (I think that’s right – I can’t find him on Google) who would sit in the studio holding his Airfix models of the Orbiter Module and the Lunar Landing Module – the very same ones you could buy at WH Smiths in the town! “Yes, the Lander will separate like this and begin its descent to the surface…” playing with these toys just the same as any kid. The BBC would fill hours of programming with massively cheap graphics and Peter Fairey’s toys. But I loved it and watched it all. The live Astronaut broadcasts scheduled for prime-time in the US meant very late nights for us in London, but I didn’t want to miss a thing.
The flight took 2 or 3 days to get to the moon, so the interesting stuff started to happen over the weekend. The crew- Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and poor old so-close-but-never-got-to land-there Michael Collins - reached moon orbit on the Saturday, and started preparing for the descent to the surface.
The next day, Sunday, for our family was the usual Public Talk and Watchtower study. We all went along, as usual, but I don’t remember anyone mentioning the Moonshot. I wanted to tell everyone I met: “This is important! This is a piece of History!” but no one seemed interested.
In fact, thinking back, one particular quote I heard really sticks out in my mind: someone said this on the TV and I’ve never forgotten it. It was a news commentator, or scientist or someone who said “This moment goes beyond a step in History, it’s a step in Evolution” Of course, I had enough sense to know that THAT was simply unsayable down the hall. (In fact, I just googled that quote, and it turns out to be a line from the New York Times Editorial for 20th July 1969, obviously widely reported.)
So, we got home from the Hall, had our tea, and settled down to the usual Sunday evening schedules on TV. I waited patiently through the usual sitcoms and thrillers, “Doctor In the House” and “The Saint” I would guess, knowing that the important stuff would begin later in the evening.
All of us (Mum, Dad, and just the four kids – my older sister had married and left home a couple of years earlier) started off watching it, and the actual touchdown on the Moon - “Tranquility base here - the Eagle has landed” - happened fairly early, around nine o clock in the evening. But, that was enough History for most of my family. Pretty soon after that we were down to 3 of us – me, my older brother and my Dad.
After the initial excitement of the landing, even I will admit, the coverage was pretty dull. The Astronauts, we were told, were sleeping prior to all the activity they had planned, so there really was nothing new to report on. The BBC staff – led by Peter Fairey and his toys – manfully filled hours and hours of airtime with nothing fresh to say.
I’m pretty sure that I reminded both my Dad and brother what a historic occasion this was – over and over. If you read my Wembley assembly post, you’ll probably know how opinionated and strident I was at 15. But, despite me, they stuck with it.
Around midnight, my Dad folded. “I can’t wait for all this - got to get up early for work tomorrow!” he ruffled my head as he went past me towards the stairs.
Now, this was novel. I was up later than my mum and dad! This had never happened before in my life. It felt very odd. At least I had the comforting presence of my older brother still with me in the other armchair. I could see, though, that even his head was nodding.
The next two hours were just me watching with rapt attention, wholly caught up in the Historical Significance of it all, all the while with my brother snoring in the background.
Then he woke with a start, and looked around, slowly gathering his wits. Eventually, he stood up and said “This is stupid” and went upstairs. I think he was really still half asleep.
Now this is really weird. I’m not just up later than Mum and Dad, I’m up later than anyone else in the family. I fight back the weird panicky feeling, because this is important, this is History.
It’s just me. Just me and the TV. Just me and History.
And I Was There. I was there. That’s the part I played – I was one of the billion people watching who would never forget. I was there when Neil Armstrong made his immortal quote – and fluffed his lines over the most important sentence he would ever utter.
“One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind.” It makes no sense at all. He meant to say “One small step for a man….” Now, THAT makes sense. But who cares about that? The First Words spoken by a man from another celestial body were all cocked-up. What could be more gloriously human than that?
It was now past four o clock in the morning. I’m trying to remember now what it was that made me finally go to bed. I think the BBC, having captured and broadcast The Moment, must have decided to shut down. Otherwise, I think I would have stuck with it.
So, this Historic day of days was about to end. I switched off the TV and in a strange, reflective mood decided to go to bed.
But this evening had one more surprise left for me.
I unplugged the TV set and walked over to the opposite corner of the room to switch off the light.
And Daylight came pouring through the gaps and edges of the living room curtains! I was delighted and astonished in equal measure. I had – literally – stayed up all night. It was a new day. And not only that, I had the strongest sense that it really was a New Day. Something had happened – things would never be the same again. It was now a New Age.
I went to our front door and opened it. I breathed in the chilly morning air. It wasn’t sunny out – it was too early. It was that dawn-light, all grey-white. But it was a new day.
A New Day.