• Mark Lavie

Moon landing--the veteran and me


“Program note”–after my musings as a rookie reporter, read on for a gripping essay by Jim Slade, a friend and colleague, who actually covered the mission.

On July 20, 1969, I was fresh out of Indiana University at my first job in TV news, anchor and reporter for WTTV, fondly known as Channel 4, in Indianapolis. I was in the control room with a few of the guys, watching that scene above.

It was spectacular. We had the picture up on the control room’s main monitor, a large screen, with a direct feed from one of the networks. We stared at the screen wordlessly for minute after minute. The flag, the rover, the astronaut. The motionless camera.

All of us were silent, in awe, except for one guy. He was the director of the nightly newscast. It was his job to keep the show moving, switching from camera to camera. We anchors had to follow his directions around the studio–usually coordinated in advance, but not always.

After a few minutes, he started moving. Then squirming. Then he couldn’t take the one-camera scene any more. He stood up and hollered, “TWO! TWO!”

Jim Slade was a radio reporter in 1969, We’ve never met in person, but he had a stint in my home town, Fort Wayne, Indiana, on his way up the ladder to the networks. Unlike me, watching a TV monitor, Jim was there:

===   ===   ===

“That’s one small step for a man..”

It was stated simply enough, but it was never thought to be

simple. Audacious, maybe..outlandish, even..but never simple. The

young President stood up and said that we would send a man to the

moon and return him safely within the decade. Just like that. Of

course, he said it would be hard, but he didn’t know the half of it. He

didn’t want to know; he’d leave that to the experts who had already

told him privately that it could be done. Now they had to go out and

do it.

Apollo was built from the scraps of World War II. Technology

captured from the Germans sparked thought among American

engineers who began experimenting with rocket-powered aircraft

while others concentrated on jets. By the time John Kennedy

reached for the moon, there was already a substantial amount of

data and materials on the shelf from which the lunar program could

borrow.

So they built a three-tiered program: Mercury, Gemini and

Apollo..the first two feeding the design of the third. Mercury proved

that a human could be equipped to survive in space. Gemini showed

the human could steer himself somewhere. Apollo put it all together

and did just that.

Apollo was a political creation; science had very little to do

with it. There was a “race” with the Russians and that was what the

public saw and what they knew.  Science was a hitchhiker, grubbing

profits..and grateful for the chance; taken along because it would

have been unseemly not to.  After all, Apollo was going to a very

mysterious place. But there was no mistaking that the Engineers

were in charge and they were getting their orders from the White

House. In all truth, that’s what kept it going.

But whatever it was, it was glorious.

The test programs were methodical and tedious. Each step was

examined and restudied within the time constraints. Mistakes were

catastrophies, successes were triumphs. The schedule was

everything and the public was paying attention, so the politicians

were never far away.

When we finally did it, the whole world was watching.  For a

brief span of time, Neil Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin and

Michael Collins were uppermost in the thoughts of man.

Launched at 9:32 AM on July 16th, 1969, (well within JFK’s

decade) the mammoth Saturn 5 rocket shoved them out of Earth’s

atmosphere and toward the moon, which they found themselves

orbiting 76 hours later. Armstrong and Aldrin undocked the Lunar

Lander at 100 hours after launch, landing on the Moon’s Sea of

Tranquility something under one hour later

Armstrong started down the ladder at 10:56 P.M., EDT. He was

seen by a vast television audience and heard world-wide on radio as

he gingerly swung his foot toward the Lunar Surface, saying: “That’s

one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

And the world changed, never to see itself the same.

There’s a plaque fastened to the forward landing leg of Apollo

11’s Lunar Module. It says that no matter what circumstances

caused us to go to the moon, when we finally did it, we did it in the

name of humanity and not just for us. It’s a noble thought, but it

may have been a little before its time.

Apollo 11 was the end product of an effort that may have

surplanted a war. The resources and the energy that went into the

leap to the moon were the effort of a single nation, spent in a

contest designed to show the rest of the world who had the best

technology, the best engineers, the best of everything desirable.

We..we and the Russians..were determined to show everybody else

who was Top Dog. And it was a near thing.

The Russians produced a lot of firsts: first satellite, first animal

in orbit, first human in orbit, first spacewalker. The schedules

tottered back and forth with advances and setbacks. At the very

last minute, the then-Soviet Union tried to one-up us with a probe to

the moon that might have gotten there a little ahead of Apollo 11 if

things had worked out. They didn’t.

The plaque is still there, probably as bright and shiny as the

day it arrived. Perhaps someday soon, other explorers will land there

and look for it. With no weather on the moon, it’s likely they’ll find

everyhing just the way the Moonwalkers left it in 1969. Certainly,

the rudimentary instruments they left can still do a job if required.

Perhaps that will happen, too, although in the intervening years the

technology has improved exponentially…another of Apollo’s great

legacies.

Going back to the Moon is in the cards for the human race.

Maybe that plaque will have more meaning now that the competitors

have learned to work together in space, bringing other nations with

them. Certainly, if the cost is to be counted, a multi-nation effort

makes good sense, just as the Moon itself makes such good sense.

We are explorers..all of us. Our planet is ideally situated for wider

exploration of the universe because the Moon is where it is. If you

need to learn how to live on another celestial body long-term, the

Moon is your training ground, just three days away. If, eventually, we

want to go to Mars (and I think we will), then the Moon is where

we’ll go to perfect the habitat we’ll take with us and to learn the

techniques for trekking beyond the horizon. The Moon will eventually

be a staging base for Mars and beyond. It will be an ideal

communications station as well as astronomy base, too, having no

atmosphere to create interference. Getting supplies to and from

such a remote station will be a long pole in the tent..water is heavy,

and carrying it across the distance will be very difficult. It’s hoped

that ice will be found in some of the deep craters at the Moon’s

south pole to relieve that burden. That kind of analysis is well

underway and, as the plaque alludes, the time has come for “all

mankind” to find the solutions..not just one nation acting in its own

interest.

But on that day, fifty years ago when we were young, this was

our shining moment.  We did it. In fact, we did better than John

Kennedy asked, landing four men on the moon and returning them

safely within that ten year period. It was a monumental task

undertaken by a nation that thought it could do anything and

wanted the rest of the world to know it.

We were proud.

And we had every right to be.

Let’s get on with it.

Jim Slade

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