America’s greatest triumph of the 1960s took place about 238,900 miles away, and effectively ended the space race with the Soviet Union.
On July 20, 1969, man walked on the moon.
Apollo 11’s lunar landing dominated everything in the summer of 1969, but it was not a communal event. Most Americans watched the landing on small black-and-white TVs in their own homes.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the dusty surface for a little more than two hours — they collected 47.5 pounds of rocks that are still being studied — while Michael Collins orbited above them.
It overshadowed everything.
Centennial grad Sally Shores had just finished her freshman year at the University of Illinois. And she’d just gotten engaged.
The couple “wanted to show my engagement ring to some close friends of ours. When we got to their apartment, the moon landing was about to take place,” she said.
“I remember standing in the darkened living room staring at the television. None of us spoke. We were caught up in the historic moment. We didn’t tell our friends about our engagement until the next day. The moon landing just seemed too big that night to share it with anything else.”
It silenced many Americans.
Sherri Bolen remembers, “We were gathered in my grandparents’ living room in Mansfield. For once, our family was totally silent with all attention focused on the television with a round screen.”
Retired UI astronomy Professor Jim Kaler called the landing “wildly exciting.”
“The moon was shining in the window on the right in our Urbana house. We had four kids at the time. One child we put to bed. Our second daughter was 4 and we made her stay up,” he said with a trace of guilt along with his wonderment.
Walter Cronkite, the CBS face of serious television news, finally managed to get out the words, “Man on the moon! ... Oh, boy. ... Whew, boy!” He had been on the air for 27 hours.
“So the news anchor shut up,” Kaler said.
“I can’t begin to tell you the emotion of the moment. I’ve been watching the moon all my life through a telescope. It was unreal that men walked on it. And it was heartbreaking that the public lost interest later.”
Future ventures to the planets seemed doable to kids who’d watched every episode of “Star Trek.” But the last Apollo mission was in 1972.
In 1966, NASA took up more than 4 percent of the national budget, but ever since the 1970s, the agency has been awarded less than 1 percent of U.S. government spending — about 0.5 percent recently, according to government figures.
The president had promised us this. For boomers, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was a tragedy, and the lunar landing a triumph.
“It took a minimum of $11 million in expenditures and in revenue loss and an estimated 1,000 personnel for the networks to produce what had to be the biggest show in broadcast history,” Broadcasting magazine wrote shortly after. “The televised moon walk attracted an audience of 125 million in the U.S., almost twice the projections made by the networks.”
The space program was a major winner — and the moon landing was the pinnacle of hope in a time of difficulty.
In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election as the nation was mired in Vietnam. A popular chant of the time was “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
The lunar landing was a goal set by Kennedy, and Johnson was his vice president.
But it was to be Richard Nixon’s time for the greatest moment in the U.S. space program, when the U.S. definitively outmatched the Soviets, who had a series of victories early in the space race.
The Soviets tried to make a new challenge, the Space Station, to change the goal line.
For boomers, it was a time of magic on every flight.
At elementary schools, all of the pupils ran to the gym and sat on the pine floor as the adults wheeled in a black-and-white TV that seemed huge at the time.
Kids watched every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launch and landing that happened during school hours.
(In retrospect, it was a daring move on the teachers’ part, given the dangers inherent in launches and landings.)
Then, each mission was yet a further accomplishment.
But Apollo 11 was the greatest one, and Armstrong had his famous first words on stepping out on the ladder.
Sarah Savage of Champaign remembers everybody else had gone to bed.
“I had a little Sony 5-inch TV on the edge of my bed, so I could watch the landing and hear Armstrong’s amazing misquote of ‘A small step for (a) man. A giant leap for mankind.’ I remember that I thought Mr. Armstrong was more literate than he sounded, but it was his moment,” she said.
“I was studying engineering because it was the space age and I grew up as a space kid.”
The walk brought people together. UI student Michael Smeltzer drove a Good Humor ice cream truck in the summer.
“One of my regular customers invited me into their home to watch it on TV,” he recalled.
The space race captivated pop culture as well. “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out in 1968, and the evil computer was created in Urbana.
And there were Radio Shacks everywhere — a different era — selling metal Apollo capsules.
They got us to the moon
The first man on the moon saw action in the Korean War, flying the Grumman F9F from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. In 1951, he was hit by anti-aircraft fire and forced to bail out. Armstrong joined the NASA Astronaut Corps in the second group in 1962. His first mission, Gemini VIII, was in 1966. The Purdue grad died in 2012.
As the Apollo Lunar Module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission, he and mission commander Armstrong were the first two astronauts to land on the moon. Gemini 12 was his first mission. After leaving NASA in 1971, he became commandant of the Air Force Test Pilot School. His second autobiography, “Magnificent Desolation,” told of his battles with depression and alcoholism after leaving NASA. Aldrin became the oldest man to fly with the Thunderbirds in 2017.
The former test pilot was the Apollo 11 crew member who didn’t get a lunar walk, staying in orbit around the moon. Collins was in the third group of astronauts, selected in 1963. He has two space flights; his first was on Gemini 10. He was the first astronaut to perform more than one spacewalk. Collins became the director of the National Air and Space Museum.
Flight director during Apollo 11, he also directed the Mission Control team to safely return the crew of Apollo 13 to Earth. He flew jets in Korea. Kranz was ranked as the second-most popular space hero in a 2010 survey, bested by Neil Armstrong.
The Spacecraft Communicator stumbled through “Roger, Twan ... Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” He was an astronaut himself and flew on Apollo 16, the youngest ever to walk on the moon. Duke is now chairman of the board of directors of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.