The 1960s brought America to its knees. The Cuban Missile Crisis gave credence to everyone’s fears of nuclear apocalypse. Assassinations robbed the American people of their president—and then of his brother. A bomb planted at a church in Birmingham murdered four little Black girls on their way to Sunday school; their killers got away with it.
The fight for civil rights took the lives of Martin, Medgar and Malcolm. In 1968 alone, almost 17,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War. In 1969, another 12,000 would follow. Perhaps for the first time, America began to doubt her own greatness.
But on this date in 1969, around 11 p.m. Eastern Time, America took a breath of fresh air. The nation’s eyes stood fixed on a grainy black and white image as Neil Armstrong became the first human being to walk on the surface of the moon. For one beautiful moment, the success of the Apollo 11 crew—Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins—had re-energized a weary nation.
In honor of the 49th anniversary of this incredible feat, I asked people where they were and what they remembered about this special moment—the moment when every ordinary American got to be a part of something extraordinary.
Thomas, 15, Wayne, NJ
I was only 15 when it happened, but I do remember that the event was highly publicized and anticipated. I guess it was somewhat like the recent solar eclipse where everyone wanted to take part in the viewing; however, it carried significantly more importance due to (among other things) the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
I forget who I was with in our basement family room, but all we had was the old black and white TV with the old roof antenna. You had to play with the “bunny ears” on top of the TV just to get reception. I remember going downstairs at the very odd hour to watch. Could you imagine anybody today getting up in the middle of the night to watch a not-so-clear black and white TV event?
I remember my Aunt Jo’s boys, my brother Mike, and I somehow got the notion that Nani [my grandmother] didn’t believe we landed on the moon. Many years later we mentioned this to my father again but he insisted Nani did believe the moon landing was true. I guess if you got all the cousins together today we would still have our doubts as to what Nani thought. It made sense; here was this little old lady who’d been born in Sicily in 1900 before there were even cars. How could she believe a man could land on the moon?
Cornelia, 7, Cherry Hill, NJ
I was about seven and we didn’t own a TV, but my parents very much wanted to see a man on the moon. A neighbor who owned one invited us all over. It happened at what seems like late at night, because my parents woke me up and they hadn’t gone to bed yet. We went to the neighbor’s house in pajamas to watch; I had pajamas and a robe and fuzzy slippers on to watch the lunar landing at a time where we got dressed up just to go grocery shopping! We ate chips and dip (which we never had before).
There were like ten of us circled around a small little TV and the picture was sort of fuzzy, full of lines and ghost images—sketchy for quality but we didn’t know any different. It was amazing that there was a way to transmit photographs from the moon to earth and on to our TV so that we could watch.
My dad said he wasn’t sure if it was Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin that we were looking at—and I was taken aback by the enormity of a man with a name and a mom and dad walking on the moon. I went to the window to see if we could see the moon in the sky but we couldn’t. Dad told me it was Australia’s turn to see it at the moment!
I can remember that grey and white picture with the man in the white bubble suit as clearly as if it was today. It made such an impression. That and the chips and going out in pajamas!
Steve, 18, Fort Carson, CO
I was an 18-year-old Army private, stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first of only 12 people who have landed on the moon. I wasn’t glued to TV but remember being in a car with other soldiers as we heard about the moon landing. What I didn’t know at the time, and didn’t learn until much later, was that the first food and drink consumed on the moon were the bread and wine of Communion. (Aldrin was a Presbyterian elder).
Seems surprising now, but back then there had been a years-long step-by-step advance in space flight including a flight around the moon, so the moon landing was cool but not unexpected. By the end of 1972, after it had been done six times, it started to almost seem routine. Americans lost interest and had other things—like the Vietnam War—to worry about. And we haven’t been back since.
Robert, 13, Louisville, KY
I had turned 13 less than two weeks before the moon landing and many of my earliest memories included the frequent and exhilarating launches into space. Like many boys, I dreamed of a time when I could travel in space—like the Jetsons.
The lead up to the lunar landing included numerous prequels. Tragically, only 30 months earlier, the nation was stunned when a fire claimed the lives of three astronauts preparing for the launch of Apollo 1. So there was plenty of suspense and prayers for safety on this monumental trip.
Media coverage of the event and our intergalactic travel was up-lifting. Growing up on a farm, in the days before cable television provided non-stop news coverage, meant you rarely focused on much away from home. But compared to the previous six years, with coverage of three major assassinations, race rioting and the Vietnam war, landing on the Moon provided encouragement and pride.
At home, like millions of other Americans, we prepared by purchasing our first color TV; we didn’t realize the broadcast would only be black and white. And since there were no VHS tape recorders or DVRs back then, there was an article in the newspaper about how you could use your home movie camera to record this historic event. It was probably the ploy of Kodak, which stood to make millions processing those home movies. But who knew that in the future we could relive the events with YouTube? Our film was even worse than the Zapruder film and was thrown out. But not those memories.
From moon landing, to walking, to the perilous take-off, it was less than a day, but those memories remain for those of us able to watch that day, 49 years ago.
Lucille and Iggy, 41 and 43, Ringwood, NJ
We were at a very old restaurant in Ringwood, NJ, called Berta’s. About a dozen of us from Pines Lake [our neighborhood] were having supper. There was a great commotion at the early evening when most of the patrons left their tables and gathered around a small TV screen. We all were looking at the screen at the actual moment the U.S. spaceman stepped down a ladder and put mankind’s first step onto the surface of the moon. The video was live and we all sensed the excitement of the historical moment. Most of the people there, their parents were immigrants. Italy, Germany, Scotland. I think we all felt excited that we were Americans and got to be a part of it. It was a moment that all of us would never forget for as long as we live.
I also remember the words of our President Kennedy to all Americans on the day he became president—that the USA would land on the moon in the very near future. I am certain that many Americans did not believe in what he was declaring but it turned into reality.
Mary, 12, Yonkers, NY
I remember being glad that we had beat the Russians, but it’s hard to know what’s memory and what you’ve just seen a million times in pictures, you know? I do know that my mother sent the astronauts a telegram. She was always doing things like that. She worked for Western Union at the time and I know she would have made sure it got to the right place.
The telegram is dated July 20, 1969, 12:25 PM. It reads:
“Astronauts Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins
Apollo 11 Space Center Mission Control, HOU
Our prayers at mass this morning were offered for the completion of the moon landing, and your safe return to earth.
The William Doyle Family
115 Schroeder St.
Yonkers, New York”
Schroeder St. was part of a Yonkers housing project. So you have this woman writing from the housing projects in New York to astronauts who landed on the moon. For a brief moment, the well-off toasting the event—and the not-so-well-off living in a housing project—celebrated the same American triumph. The moon landing had all Americans standing a little taller. We were able to believe once again that America was the greatest nation.
As human beings, most of our great equalizers are tragic. War, poverty, disease and death humble both the king and the pauper. The Moon landing, however, equalized in a different way. For a moment, every American had equal cause for joy. It didn’t belong any more to the wealthy than it did to the poor. For who could be arrogant in the face of such a vast, incomprehensible universe? And yet, who could not be proud that humanity was capable of such daring and awe?
For a few moments, the lunar landing equalized all Americans by captivation and wonder. For a few moments, the Moon brought peace on earth.