If someone had asked in January, or two months ago, what historic event happened on July 20, most of us would have drawn a blank.
That’s because Americans alive in 1969 certainly remember the space race, and also the achievement that fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s promise eight years earlier. However, the actual day the United States landed a space craft on the Moon hasn’t risen to the level of other dates which most Americans recognize as historic.
Those momentous dates would include July 4, Dec. 7, and Sept. 11. See? I didn’t even need to mention the years.
Despite expectations to the contrary, July 20, 1969, has never taken root in the consciousness of those who witnessed a man on the Moon, live on television no less, and certainly not with the generations who followed.
Explanations are needed about the date Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. It happened later that night, at 10:54 p.m. Eastern time, but official records are calculated with Greenwich Mean Time, which is four hours later. By that reckoning, the day a man’s boots touched the Moon’s surface becomes July 21, 1969.
Details, details. These records would have been much cleaner if the crew of Apollo 11 hadn’t been running several hours ahead of schedule and opened the hatch early.
Perhaps it’s all for the best. If they had been on schedule, millions of viewers back on planet Earth would probably not have been awake to witness everything as it happened. Just like any compelling suspense drama on television, then and since, the plot wrapped up just as prime time ended.
Perhaps it was such timing that has led to some conspiracy fans to start speculating that the entire event was fabricated on a Hollywood movie set. If this had been the only landing, perhaps such a theory would seem credible. But it would be impossible to duplicate such a ruse four more times with a total of 12 men who walked on the Moon.
Those of us who are at least in our 60s now, and older, probably remember that day well — even if the actual date needs to be refreshed every so often. My family had been invited to eat lunch with a family at a church we were visiting, and we went to their house to watch preliminary coverage. With the lunar module safely on the Moon’s surface, we went home to wait for the astronauts to make their historic walk.
My father had previously worked three years as a civilian contractor with NASA at White Sands Missile Ranch in New Mexico, so we had a personal interest — even though he had been transferred to North Carolina by then. A lot of people had been involved in the race to the Moon, perhaps 400,000 workers, according to historians.
Indeed, July 20, 1969, is a significant date in the chronology of human achievement. People had wondered and speculated about the second brightest object in our skies for centuries, stretching back before recorded history.
It was an amazing achievement. After the Moon landing and subsequent walk, space missions became routine. The goal had been achieved. Space travel became commonplace, except when two disastrous accidents occurred.
In about three years, we’ll have another 50th space anniversary that has also slipped through the cracks of our consciousness.
The last time any human was on the Moon was December 14, 1972.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.