Fifty years ago, U.S. astronauts reached and walked on the moon. It was a remarkable engineering feat. But, it was also an important salve to American pride at a time when it was badly needed. A half-century later, the Apollo 11 mission is a reminder of American ingenuity and can-do attitude.
Let’s not forget what came before the Apollo 11 mission. President John F. Kennedy, who pushed for a moon landing before the decade ended, had been assassinated. In 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the late-president’s brother Robert Kennedy — a U.S. senator and former attorney general, and civil rights leader — were both killed. Civil rights marches, often interrupted with police brutality, were fixtures on the nightly news. Protests of the Vietnam War grew as the body count and questions about the conflict rose.
Even within the space program, failures and tragedy were common as the U.S. competed with Russia to put a man in space. In 1967, astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire on Apollo 1 as it sat on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
The Apollo program was grounded amid congressional hearings and the command module was redesigned. In late 1968, Apollo 7 was successfully launched. Two months later, Apollo 8 and its three astronauts orbited the moon, followed by two more successful Apollo missions.
On the morning of July 16, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off in Apollo 11 as thousands watched in Florida along with millions watching television.
Four days later, Americans again gathered around their television sets as the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the moon. “The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong famously radioed to mission control.
Four hours later, Armstrong emerged from the module and stepped onto the moon. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said in another famous radio transmission.
America, it seemed in that moment, could accomplish anything it set its mind to. While Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were hailed as heroes, it took hundreds of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and a 10-year-old boy in Guam, to build the U.S. space program and to get the men safely to the moon and back. Only recently have the contributions of women, particularly black women, been recognized.
Sen. Susan Collins remembers her father loading the family’s heavy black-and-white television into a station wagon at their Caribou home and bringing in to their camp on Madawaska Lake because the Apollo 11 mission was such a “momentous, historic, and exciting event.”
“We gathered before the television first listening to Walter Cronkite and then watching as Neil Armstrong said his famous words as he walked on the surface of the moon,” she recalled.
“The anniversary of this extraordinary event reminds us of what we can accomplish when we work together to reach an inspiring goal,” Collins said.
“The moon landing was transfixing, suspenseful and wonderful,” Gov. Janet Mills said. “‘One small step … one giant leap…’ meant that we would be doing so much more, that our horizons were opened up exponentially and that we had, for that time, won the space race against the Russians. It was truly thrilling to watch an important part of history unfolding before our very eyes.”
Sen. Angus King posted about the mission on Instagram this week, along with a photo of Apollo 11 beamed onto the Washington Monument.
“The successful voyage of Apollo 11 was an amazing achievement, made all the more so by the primitive computers available at the time,” King said. “There’s no doubt that your car has more computing power than that which guided this incredibly complex and dangerous mission.”
The moon still has the capacity to awe and unite us. We share pictures of the full moon on social media. We relish a moonlit walk on the beach. We sing along with countless songs about the moon. We take solace knowing that the moon outside our window will also shine on friends and family who are far away.
“The moon is one of our universal wonders,” Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote this week. “Its hypnotic quality transcends age, place, class, race, the agitations of politics. In our divided world, it’s something that binds us. Your moon is my moon. My moon is yours.”