50 Years Ago Today

20 Jul

Fifty years ago today, I was a 7 year old kid from Newton, IA, riding in the back of my dad’s “company car” 1969 Chevy Impala on our way from Iowa to New Jersey for our annual sea shore vacation with my grandparents from my mom’s side.

50 years ago today was also a crucial time in our nation. Besides the Vietnam war, and all the protests, and Beatlemania and hippies and Woodstock and everything else that had happened in the last 3 years, we were in a national race for our future, or at least it was perceived that way.  The Soviets/Russians and the Americans were locked in a dead heat for space dominance.  And on this day, the US would decisively win, because on this day, the first men landed and walked on the moon, and those men were American.

All I knew as a seven year old kid was that I was OBSESSED with Apollo.  I could name every astronaut. I could name every major part of a Saturn 5, I could quote the thrust rating of the five F1 engines at liftoff (7.1 million pounds, 40 times the max thrust of a Boeing 747-400 by the way), that the whole Saturn V stack weighed 6.8 million pounds and it would take an escape velocity of about 27,000 mph to leave Earth’s gravity and head to the moon. While I don’t remember it, I’m guessing my Mom and Dad may have won a few bar bets with me back then.  “Go ahead, ask him …”

I remember that day like it was yesterday.  We had overnighted in Glen Ellyn, IL at the home of my aunt and uncle and cousins, and I remember not understanding why my oldest cousin, who was my age, didn’t seem to care about this like I did.  We set out across Indiana and Ohio, and I remember stopping for gas somewhere in Ohio or just into Pennsylvania at a Gulf station where they were running a promotion of a free paper die-cut lunar module “Eagle” model you could pop out of the paper and build.  My Dad got me one and it was the best present ever.

We got back in the car and a little while later my Dad turned up the radio loud – the Astronauts were landing on the moon.  We were driving along (I-80) and hanging on every word. I didn’t understand a whole lot of what I was hearing but even then I remember thinking how amazing it was that we were listening to Astronauts from 246,000 miles away (I knew that stat too!) live on the car radio as if we were listening to my Dad’s beloved Iowa Hawkeyes on a fall afternoon.  And we heard the words …

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. ……… The Eagle has landed!” 


And all of a sudden outside of the car, every car horn on the road was blaring. My dad hit the horn as well, adding the blare of the Impala’s voice to the brief I-80 celebration.  I remember looking out the back window where there was a semi-truck following us, and he was blasting his horn, and pounding on his steering wheel, a giddy grin a mile wide on his face.

I don’t remember a whole lot of the rest of that day – we stayed at a motel – our preference was one of the “big 3” in American travel motel brands – Best Western, Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson.  I liked “HoJo” the best because of the food, but I don’t think that’s where we stayed – I think it was a Holiday Inn.  I’m sure we swam, had a nice dinner. My folks probably had a couple of cocktails from the “portable bar” kit they always brought on trips like this, while my sister and I splashed around in the pool.  And then it was bed time.  Except it wasn’t – we were staying up REALLY late – past 10:00 PM eastern time – because the Astronauts were going to walk on the moon.

I don’t remember which network we were tuned into on the TV (my mom insists that it was a TV we brought on the trip) but the anticipation was incredible.  I remember as Armstrong came out of the LEM door and activated the TV camera, that the picture was upside down and Mission Control had him pause there for a second while they electronically flipped the image.  Then he descended the ladder – I can see the shadowy figure on the TV screen across the darkened motel room like it happened 2 minutes ago.  He stepped off the ladder and into the history books.

“That’s one small step for man.  One giant leap for mankind.”

Aldrin came out, they started their 2 hour excursion.  I fell asleep moments after Aldrin came out, I think. I was probably wearing astronaut themed PJs, and most definitely the smile of the happiest 7 year old space-crazed little boy on earth.

The world watched and observed America’s greatness in that day, and the world came together for a brief moment as one.  They say now that as many as 1.5 billion people watched some sort of coverage of the moon landing and another .5 billion followed it on radio.  At the time the global population was estimated at 3.61 billion people, so that’s more than half of the people on earth, all hanging on that amazing moment and celebrating our species’ singular triumph.

They say that space travel changes you – that you achieve a global perspective that you can’t really get sitting down on terra-firma where borders and governments and politics identify where you live, not a single address:  Earth.

Our world could use heroes again like Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins (and the rest of the Apollo astronauts).  Our world could use something to raise it’s gaze to a more global view.  Hopefully that will come in something like Apollo, versus catastrophe.

But just for today, let’s all put aside that and remember that in some way, for those of us that were alive to see and remember it, we were all wide-eyed little 7 year olds in our astronaut jammies, fighting off sleep as men stepped out of their little “earth” habitat and explored another world in an effort to make our world a better one.


As you were,


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