One Giant Leap

Posted July 18, 2009, at 12:20 a.m.

Forty years ago, human beings took their first steps on an extraterrestrial world in an event that captivated a nation and made people everywhere believe that anything is possible. Just a few months after he was inaugurated in 1961, President John F. Kennedy told a joint session of Congress that he would direct federal resources to put a man on the moon within a decade. Some thought the president was overreaching while others embraced his bold prediction.

As it turned out, it took only eight years for that dream to be realized, although Kennedy did not live to see it.

When Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969, and uttered the words that followed — “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — the moment was etched in history.

A few minutes later, Buzz Aldrin followed Armstrong down the ladder. Michael Collins was orbiting the moon in the mission’s command module, awaiting their return roughly 20 hours later.

The Apollo 11 mission was not the country’s first attempt at space travel, nor was it the first mission to the moon. Apollo 8 had orbited without landing at Christmas 1968.

Most who are old enough recall the July 1969 events that showcased the power and universal reach of television as a medium for immediate information.

The moon landing came during a period of turmoil and uncertainty. Despite passage of milestone civil rights and voting rights acts, racial tension persisted. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were fresh in many hearts and minds. The U.S. was mired in what felt to some like a futile war in Vietnam.

And yet, for a moment during that summer of 1969, the Apollo 11 mission provided a glimmer of hope. Forty years later the event continues to serve as a reminder of what humans can do when they put their minds to it.

The Bangor Daily News invited Maine residents and readers to recount their experiences and recollections of a momentous event that took place nearly a quarter-million miles from Earth. The people who responded range from politicians to an astronomy professor to a woman, now 100, who was 60 years old in July 1969.

Lucienne Cloutier, 100, French Island

Lucy Cloutier, who now lives in Old Town, was born on June 24, 1909, in Quebec. The mother of four children and former shoe shop and woolen mill worker was 60 in July 1969 when she watched the moon walk on television at her home on French Island. Her memory of the event is clear.

“They left from Cape Canaveral. I think they were in space for seven days. It was light on the moon when they landed. They were wearing those space suits. … [Neil Armstrong] went out and put the American flag on the ground. They walked a little on the moon and said what it was like — it was rocks, mostly. They took some rock and brought it back with them.

“At first, I thought it was a big expense, but then I realized it was a big accomplishment for the United States to be the first one up there. The Russians wanted to get up there first.”

“They’ve slowed [the space program] down some now,” she said, “but they’re still trying to do more. [People] will walk on other planets. Oh, yes they will. It may be a long time, but eventually they’ll succeed.” (Meg Haskell)

Joseph Ferris • Brewer

Joseph Ferris and his parents sat in front of their 20-inch black-and-white Stewart Warner television set watching as Armstrong and Aldrin skyrocketed the United States into the history books.

Ferris, now a lawyer and Brewer City Council member, was 25 at the time. He was home on summer vacation from law school.

“It was an uplifting moment for our country,” he said. “We actually had done what John Kennedy wanted done before the end of the decade.”

President Kennedy, in a May 25, 1961, speech to Congress, said he wanted the U.S. to get to the moon by the end of the ’60s. Apollo 11 met the goal with just months to spare.

“It was one of the things he wanted to do, and sure enough we did it,” Ferris said.

“I remember when we flew around the moon the year before — that was the most exciting thing I can remember,” he said. “Then we landed on the moon.”

Apollo 8, the first manned flight to circle the moon, was launched from Cape Kennedy, Fla., the morning of Dec. 21, 1968. It circled the moon and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean seven days after the launch.

“It was a very proud moment for the country — that we could actually do anything,” Ferris said. (Nok-Noi Ricker)

Richard Robertson • Frankfort

“When I was in the Air Force in ’53, jet planes were just coming into being,” Richard Robertson, 73, of Frankfort said. “To see us send a rocket to the moon a few years later was quite an achievement.

“I remember seeing Armstrong walking on the surface of the moon and I was stunned. I never thought I would see a man land on the moon and get back to Earth safely. I know Kennedy said it, but I didn’t believe it could ever happen.” (Walter Griffin)

Bill Townsend • Bar Harbor

Former high school science teacher Bill Townsend of Bar Harbor never got to go into space. But in 1985 he was one of 100 finalists nationwide for NASA’s Teacher in Space program. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, N.H., ended up being chosen to fly on the doomed space shuttle Challenger, which exploded soon after launch in February 1986.

Townsend, who taught science at Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan for 30 years, recalled Monday how he was interested in science and space flight as a young man. In October 1957, when he was 17 and living in Calais, he correctly calculated when Sputnik, the Russian satellite, would be visible in the night sky above his house.

Less than 12 years later, when he was on break from his teaching duties, Townsend and his wife traveled west for the summer and were visiting his uncle in Tucson, Ariz., when the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. They drove to nearby Mount Lemmon to go bird-watching and were stopped in a parking lot, listening to the lunar landing on their car radio.

That’s when a U.S. Forest Service helicopter landed near their car. Two rangers in the helicopter knew the landing was about to occur and wanted to hear it happen on the radio, he said.

“The four of us were listening to it. People were quite excited,” Townsend said. “Everyone had this sense of pride. It’s hard to describe.”

Townsend said later that day they watched on television at his uncle’s house as Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the lunar surface.

“When you saw that you thought, ‘I’d love to be there,’” he said. “Not everyone did, but I did. I would have loved to have orbited.”

Townsend said NASA has targeted 2020 as the year by which it hopes to have another manned space flight land on the moon. He said he doubts the public will ever get as excited about a manned space flight as it did about Apollo 11’s landing.

“I don’t think it will ever be the same,” Townsend said. (Bill Trotter)

Ann Martin • Caribou

Ann Martin of Caribou was a 15-year-old high school student when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

Martin’s mother made July 20, 1969, a special day for her daughter and three young boys, all of whom were in elementary and middle school.

That morning, Ann Martin said, her mother “sat the boys down at the table and helped them make rockets out of paper and things. While they were doing that, I baked cookies for everyone.”

“My mother told the boys they were ‘moon dust cookies,’ but really they were just gingersnaps with powdered sugar on them,” Martin said.

“Our television had been broken for a while,” she said. “My parents still wanted my three brothers and I to see the moon landing, though, so we went to a neighbor’s home to watch.”

Martin said her entire family was “mesmerized” by the moon landing.

“I can still see my brothers staring open-mouthed at the television,” she said. “It really was a historic moment.” (Jen Lynds)

Neil Comins • Bangor

Neil Comins of Bangor said he believes his change of major may have resulted from watching Neil Armstrong take that first step on the moon.

Comins had been a freshman electrical engineering major at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., but by the fall of 1969, less than two months after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, he was ready to change his major to engineering physics, a more science-oriented course of study.

Comins watched the moon walk while he was working at a summer camp in Vermont.

“I realized I’m not satisfied with my teachers telling me something that scientists can show,” said Comins, now in his 31st year as a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Maine. “[Teachers] would write an equation on the board and I wanted to understand where the equations came from. … As soon as [the moon walk] happened, it felt to me as if the rules for living would change forever, because we were now free.”

Comins, 58, has written 14 books, including 1993’s “What If the Moon Didn’t Exist?” and a sequel, “What If the Earth Had Two Moons?” coming out in January 2010.

The modern-day equivalent to a lunar landing, Comins believes, would be a Mars trip. It’s a much harder feat to pull off, he said, because the gravity on Mars is much stronger than the moon’s and it will be harder to launch a vehicle from the surface to bring astronauts home.

Still, Comins said, the preparations scientists are making now will benefit humanity in the long run. Research is being done, for example, on methods of slowing down tooth decay and bone loss during a voyage to Mars, which Comins said would likely take at least six months.

Comins said research for the moon walk resulted decades later in advances such as fireproof fabrics, lithium batteries and cell phone cameras.

“These are things which will help millions of people but were designed for half a dozen,” he said. (Jessica Bloch)

Pete Kalajian • Camden

Amateur astronomer Pete Kalajian, 49, of Camden said watching the moon landing 40 summers ago changed his life.

The science teacher recalls sitting in his aunt’s Johnstown, Pa., TV room. He was a 9-year-old boy glued to the blurry images of men bounding on the moon’s surface.

“The moon landing became very motivating for me,” Kalajian said.

As a boy, he read every piece of science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s writing he could get his hands on.

The indelible images of the moon landing illuminated his path as he later worked to become an engineer, Kalajian said. “The idea that you could say, ‘How do we get a guy on the moon?’ then design the solution — that really clicked with me.”

Now, he teaches physics and introduction to scientific observing at Rockland’s Watershed School and serves as president of the Central Maine Astronomical Society. That group holds a monthly star party, where members talk about astronomy and then — weather permitting — train their telescopes on the night sky.

“I’m not a religious person, but I’m certainly a spiritual person,” Kalajian said. “The more I learn about how the universe is put together, the more amazing it is.” (Abigail Curtis)

Steve Donoso • Rockland

For Rockland librarian Steve Donoso, watching the moon landing was like “science fiction come true.”

“‘Star Trek’ was about to go off the air, and here was reality meets fiction,” Donoso said.

He was 12 at the time and remembers staying up later than usual with his family to watch the moon landing and listen as Walter Cronkite narrated this bit of history.

Donoso wanted others to experience some of the wonder he felt and organized a special program to mark the Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary, which included a screening of the film “In the Shadow of the Moon” at the library Thursday.

“It’s wonderful,” Donoso said of the movie.

“It has great archival footage, some of which has never been shown,” including footage of Neil Armstrong piloting the lunar module vehicle, and ejecting out of it a second and a half before it explodes, Donoso said. (Abigail Curtis)

Alison M. McCrady • Portland

“I was at Girl Scout camp. We all gathered around a big TV on a cart that had been wheeled into the main dining area for the occasion. It was in black and white, but I remember being amazed that I was seeing a picture from the moon. It sent shivers down my spine, wishing I was there, too.”

Janice D. Currier • Presque Isle

“Our first child, a little girl, had been born in the Army hospital. I remember all the new mothers watching the event together being so awed and excited about the moon walk just as we were beginning a new step into motherhood. Never a birthday goes by that I don’t think about that July when man walked on the moon and our sunshine was born.”

Ginny Pond • Calais

“I was sitting on the sofa in my grandmother’s living room in Ohio with my Aunt Clarissa, who remembered riding in a covered wagon in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 as a young child. She had seen a lot of developments since then, but surely never dreamed she’d be watching a man walk on the moon! Sharing the moment with her and grandma made it all the more special to me.”

Denny Bouchard • Los Angeles

“I was a radio announcer at WABI [in Bangor] and was actually working on the air when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I had the distinct honor of reading the breaking news as it happened to the people of Bangor, at least those who were listening. The news at that time came into the newsroom via Teletype. I took the Teletype headlines from the moonwalk home with me at the end of my shift and have them still. I was 20 years old and into the second of my three years at WABI.”

Ralph Marshall • Birmingham, Ala.

“I was a newly graduated electrical engineer from the University of Maine working in Nashua, N.H. My son Wayde was born February 20 of 1969 so was 5 months old. I knew this would be a historic moment, so when Neil Armstrong came down the ladder, I set Wayde in front of the TV in his baby chair so he would witness it. I remind him of it occasionally — perhaps he will tell his grandchildren about it some day.”

Robert Booker • Media, Pa.

“I was at Andrews Barracks, a former SS barracks, in West Berlin, Germany. My friends and I tried to stay up to watch but I was the only one awake at around 3 a.m. It was very cool for this young man from Holden, Maine, not only to see a man walk on the moon, but to be able to see it from 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain.”

Ginny Brown • Machias

“I was playing in our backyard with friends when our neighbors called us over and said we needed to watch this with them, as it was history in the making. We kept looking at the moon to see if we could see the astronauts and then looking back at the TV to see if there were any landmarks that could tell us where to look at the moon for the astronauts. Boy, were we naive kids.”

Gov. John Baldacci

Gov. John Baldacci, who was 14 in 1969, said the moon landing made it seem like anything was possible, as if the science fiction he knew from comic books and television had come true.

“I remember very clearly. It was a Sunday night and the entire family was huddled around the television. It was like we suddenly burst into a new era,” he said. “It was one of those singular moments that brought everyone together at one time and one place as a witness to history.”

The legacy of that moment lives on today, he said.

“It inspired a generation of kids to study math, science and engineering,” Baldacci said. “When I was in Congress, I was able to take a moon rock to schools. You could feel the wonder and excitement in the classrooms. And it’s still there when you talk about space.” (Eric Russell)

Sen. Olympia Snowe

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe had just graduated from college in 1969 and was living in Litchfield with her soon-to-be in-laws when Apollo 11 landed, an event she called a promise-filled moment.

“It captivated everybody,” Snowe said. “It was such a far-reaching thing. President Kennedy had talked about it a few years prior, and then it happened.”

She said the moon landing was a bright spot in a decade filled with the turmoil of the Vietnam War and racial tensions.

“It allowed us to turn away from that and experience something optimistic,” she said. “I think that lesson can translate to today. We should be reminding people that you can set high aspirations and achieve them.” (Eric Russell)

Sen. Susan Collins

Sen. Susan Collins remembered watching the moon landing as a 16-year-old from her family’s camp at Madawaska Lake.

“I remember how exciting it was because my parents brought the television to the camp from our house in Caribou so that we could all watch Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. At that time, we did not have a television at the camp, so this demonstrated to me just how historic this event was.”

That event 40 years ago generated interest in space exploration but also led to developments that have improved quality of life here on Earth, Collins said.

“NASA research has led to improvements in medicine such as the development of MRI technology, laser technology … even the invention of the smoke detector that we should all have in our homes.” (Eric Russell)

Rep. Mike Michaud

Maine’s 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud was 14 in July 1969. The moon landing represented a triumph of American ingenuity and spirit, he said.

“The Apollo program reaffirmed our place in the world as a leader in science, innovation and national ability,” he said. “The moon landings and subsequent space exploration have helped to usher in a new age of technology. It laid the foundation for many modern technologies, including telecommunications satellites, advanced computers, water filters and fire-resistant fabrics used by soldiers and firefighters.”

Michaud also pointed out that current space missions hope to address more current challenges such as climate change.

“As a country, it is important that we continue to be leaders in scientific research and development. The Apollo missions set the bar,” he said. (Eric Russell)

Rep. Chellie Pingree

Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st Congressional District said she remembers the late 1960s as a time when anything seemed possible, when any disease seemed curable and when any challenge seemed surmountable.

“But by 1969 when John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King [Jr.] had all been assassinated, the future was looking more confused,” said Pingree, who had just turned 14 in July 1969. “That’s why having the whole country come together to watch man walk on the moon for the first time was such an important moment.” (Eric Russell)

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