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Prologue: The Launch
After the Moon mission was over and the Apollo 11 astronauts were back on Earth, Buzz Aldrin remarked to Neil Armstrong, "Neil, we missed the whole thing."
Somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people, the largest crowd ever for a space launch, gathered at Florida's Cape Kennedy in the days leading to Wednesday, July 16, 1969. Nearly a thousand policemen, state troopers, and waterborne state conservation patrolmen struggled through the previous night to keep an estimated 350,000 cars and boats flowing on the roads and waterways. One enterprising state auto inspector leased two miles of roadside from orange growers, charging two bucks a head for viewing privileges. For $1.50 apiece, another entrepreneur sold pseudo-parchment attendance certificates with simulated Old English lettering; an additional $2.95 bought a pseudo space pen.
No tailgate party at any Southeastern Conference football game could match the summer festival preceding the first launch for a Moon landing. Sunglassed spectators dressed in Bermuda shorts or undressed in bikinis, even at this early hour firing up barbecue grills, opening coolers of beer and soda pop, peering through binoculars and telescopes, testing camera angles and lenses -- people filled every strand of sand, every oil-streaked pier, every fish-smelling jetty.
Sweltering in 90-degree heat by midmorning, bitten up by mosquitoes, still aggravated by traffic jams or premium tourist prices, the great mass of humanity waited patiently for the mammoth Saturn V to shoot Apollo 11 toward the Moon.
In the Banana River, five miles south of the launch complex, all manner of boats choked the watercourse. Companies such as Grumman Aircraft had hired the larger charters for the day to give their employees a chance to witness the product of their years of effort. Aboard a large cabin cruiser, the Grapefruit II, wealthy citrus grower George Lier of Orchid Island, Florida, playfully tossed grapefruit at passersby. Just offshore, two small African-American boys sat in a ramshackle rowboat casually watching the mayhem that was making it so hard to catch any fish.
On a big motor cruiser owned by North American Aviation, builder of the Apollo command module, Janet Armstrong, the wife of Apollo 11's commander, and her two boys, twelve-year-old Rick and six-year-old Mark, stood nervously awaiting the launch. Fellow astronaut Dave Scott, Neil's mate on the Gemini VIII flight in 1966, had arranged what Janet called a "numero uno spot." Besides Scott, two of Janet's friends -- Pat Spann, a neighbor from El Lago, Texas, whose husband worked in the Manned Spacecraft Center's Mission Support Office, and Jeanette Chase, who helped Janet coach the synchronized swimming team at the El Lago Keys Club and whose husband served in the Recovery Division at MSC -- were also on board, as were a few NASA public affairs officers and Dora Jane (Dodie) Hamblin, a journalist with exclusive coverage of the personal side of the Apollo 11 story for Life magazine.
Above them all, helicopters ferried successive groups of VIPs to reserved bleacher seating in the closest viewing stands a little more than three miles away from the launchpad. Of the nearly 20,000 on NASA's special guest list, about one-third actually attended, including a few hundred foreign ministers, ministers of science, military attaches, and aviation officials, as well as nineteen U.S. state governors, forty mayors, and a few hundred leaders of American business and industry. Half the members of Congress were in attendance, as were a couple of Supreme Court justices. The guest list ranged from General William Westmoreland, the U.S. army chief of staff in charge of the war in Vietnam, and Johnny Carson, the star of NBC's Tonight Show, to Leon Schachter, head of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers, and Prince Napoleon of Paris, a direct descendant of the emperor Napoleon.
Vice President Spiro T. Agnew sat in the bleachers while President Richard M. Nixon watched on TV from the Oval Office. Originally, the White House had planned for Nixon to dine with the Apollo 11 astronauts the night before liftoff, but the plan changed after Dr. Charles Berry, the astronauts' chief physician, was quoted in the press warning that there was always a chance that the president might unknowingly be harboring an incipient cold. Armstrong, Aldrin, and the third member of their crew, Mike Collins, thought the medical concern was absurd; if the truth be known, twenty or thirty people -- secretaries, space suit technicians, simulator technicians -- were coming into daily contact. Apollo 8's Frank Borman, whom NASA had designated as Nixon's special space consultant, assailed Berry's warning as "totally ridiculous" and "damned stupid" but stopped short of arguing for another reversal of plans, "because if anyone sneezes on the Moon, they'd put the blame on the president."
Two thousand credentialed reporters watched the launch from the Kennedy Space Center press site. Eight hundred and twelve came from foreign countries, 111 from Japan alone. A dozen journalists came from the Soviet bloc: seven from Czechoslovakia, three from Yugoslavia, and two from Romania.
Landing on the Moon was a shared global event which nearly all humankind felt transcended politics. British papers used two- and three-inch high type to herald news of the launch. In Spain, the Evening Daily Pueblo, though critical of American foreign policy, sent twenty-five contest winners on an all-expense-paid trip to Cape Kennedy. A Dutch editorialist called his country "lunar-crazy." A Czech commentator remarked, "This is the America we love, one so totally different from the America that fights in Vietnam." The popular German paper Bild Zeitung noted that seven of the fifty-seven Apollo supervisors were of German origin; the paper chauvinistically concluded, "12 percent of the entire Moon output is 'made in Germany.' " Even the French considered Apollo 11 "the greatest adventure in the history of humanity." France-Soir's twenty-two-page supplement sold 1.5 million copies. A French journalist marveled that interest in the Moon landing was running so high "in a country whose people are so tired of politics and world affairs that they are accused of caring only about vacations and sex."
Moscow Radio led its broadcast with news of the launch. Pravda rated the scene at Cape Kennedy front-page news, captioning a picture of the Apollo 11 crew "these three courageous men."
Not all the press was favorable. Out of Hong Kong, three Communist newspapers attacked the mission as a cover-up for the American failure to win the Vietnam War and charged that the Moon landing was an effort to "extend imperialism into space."
Others charged that the materialism of the American space program would forever ruin the wonder and beautiful ethereal qualities of the mysterious Moon, enveloped from time immemorial in legend. After human explorers violated the Moon with footprints and digging tools, who again could ever find romance in poet John Keats's question, "What is there in thee, moon, that thou shouldst move my heart so potently?"
Partaking of the technological miracle of the first telecommunications satellites launched earlier in the decade, at the U.S. embassy in Seoul, 50,000 South Koreans gathered before a wall-sized television screen. A crowd of Poles filled the auditorium at the American embassy in Warsaw. Trouble with AT&T's Intelsat III satellite over the Atlantic prevented a live telecast in Brazil (as it did in many parts of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean region), but Brazilians listened to accounts on radio and bought out special newspaper editions. Because of the Intelsat problem, a makeshift, round-the-world, west-to-east transmission caused a two-second lag in live coverage worldwide.
Shortly before liftoff, CBS News commentator Eric Sevareid, who at age sixty-six was seeing his first manned shot, described the scene to Walter Cronkite's television audience: "Walter...as we sit here today...I think the [English] language is being altered.... How do you say 'high as the sky' anymore, or 'the sky is the limit' -- what does that mean?"
Nowhere on the globe was the excitement as palpable as it was throughout the United States. In east Tennessee, tobacco farmers picking small pink flowers from tobacco plants crowded around a pocket-size transistor in order to share the big moment. In the harbor at Biloxi, Mississippi, shrimpers waited on the wharf for word that Apollo 11 had lifted off. At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where 7:30 a.m. classes were postponed, fifty cadets hovered around one small TV set. "Everybody held his breath," a twenty-year-old senior cadet from Missouri said. "Then, as the spaceship lifted off the ground, we began to cheer and clap and yell and scream." In the twenty-four-hour casino at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the blackjack and roulette tables sat empty while gamblers stood spellbound in front of six television sets.
The multitude of eyewitnesses assembled on and around the Cape, Merritt Island, Titusville, Indian River, Cocoa Beach, Satellite Beach, Melbourne, throughout Brevard and Osceola counties, as far away as Daytona Beach and Orlando, prepared to behold one of the most awesome sights known to man, second only perhaps to the detonation of an atomic bomb.
William Nelson, an engineering planner from Durham, Connecticut, sat with his family of seven and, gazing at the Apollo rocket looming eleven miles away, said excitedly, "They tell me I'll be able to feel the earth shake when it goes off. Once I see it, I'll know that it was worth all the heat and mosquitoes. All I know is that my kids will be able to say they were here." The voice of Jacksonville, Florida's Mrs. John Yow, wife of a stockbroker, quivered as she uttered, "I'm shaky, I'm tearful. It's the beginning of a new era in the life of man." Charles Walker, a student from Armstrong's own Purdue University, told a newsman from his campsite on a small inlet in Titusville, "It's like mankind has developed fire all over again. Perhaps this will be the kindling light to put men together now." In the VIP stands nearest the launch complex, R. Sargent Shriver, the U.S. ambassador to France who was married to Eunice Kennedy, a sister of the deceased president John Kennedy, who had committed the country to landing on the Moon, declared, "How beautiful it is! The red of the flames, the blue of the sky, the white fumes -- those colors! Think of the guys in there getting that incredible ride. Incroyable!"
CBS's sixty-one-year-old commentator Heywood Hale Broun, best known for his irreverent sports journalism, experienced the liftoff with several thousand people along Cocoa Beach, some fifteen miles south of the launchpad. He told Cronkite's audience of tens of millions, "At a tennis match you look back and forth. On a rocket launch you just keep going up and up, your eyes going up, your hopes going up, and finally the whole crowd like some vast many-eyed crab was staring out and up and up and all very silent. There was a small 'Aah' when the rocket first went up, but after that it was just staring and reaching. It was the poetry of hope, if you will, unspoken but seen in the kind of concentrated gestures that people had as they reached up and up with the rocket."
Even those who came to the launch to protest could not help but be deeply moved. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, successor to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and de facto leader of the American civil rights movement, marched with four mules and about 150 members of the Poor People's Campaign for Hunger as close as they were allowed to get to the sprawling spaceport. "We are protesting America's inability to choose the proper priorities," said Hosea Williams, the SCLC's director of political education, who claimed money spent to get to the Moon could have wiped out hunger for 31 million poor people. Nonetheless, Williams stood "in admiration of the astronauts," just as Reverend Abernathy himself "succumbed to the awe-inspiring launch," declaring, "I was one of the proudest Americans as I stood on this soil. I think it's really holy ground."
"There's so much that we have yet to do -- the hunger in the world, the sickness in the world, the poverty in the world," former president Lyndon B. Johnson told Walter Cronkite shortly after watching the launch from his bleacher seat, wife Lady Bird at his side. "We must apply some of the great talents that we've applied to space to all these problems, and get them done, and get them done in the spirit of what's the greatest good for the greatest number."
With ten minutes left on the clock, the thoughtful Eric Sevareid said on-air to Cronkite, "There's not a carnival atmosphere here, really. You've got the snack shops and all the rest, all the trailers, but there is a quiet atmosphere, and when the van carrying the astronauts themselves went by on this roadway just now, there was a kind of hush among the people. Those things move very slowly as though they're carrying nitroglycerine or something. You get a feeling that people think of these men as not just superior men but different creatures. They are like people who have gone into the other world and have returned, and you sense they bear secrets that we will never entirely know, and that they will never entirely be able to explain."
In central Ohio, a thousand miles from the viewing stands in Florida, the little burg of Wapakoneta, Armstrong's hometown, counted down. Streets were virtually empty, with nearly 6,700 residents glued to their television sets. Downtown stores, displaying framed pictures of Neil and red, white, and blue pennants proclaiming the town's piece in "the biggest event of the century," delayed their opening until after liftoff.
The quiet, even quasi-religious anticipation followed weeks of commercial and patriotic uproar in the town. At the center of the chaos was 912 Neil Armstrong Drive, the one-story, ranch-style home of Viola and Steve Armstrong, into which the couple had moved just a year earlier. Neil's parents had attended the Gemini VIII launch in 1966. Their son had also arranged for them to witness Apollo 10's liftoff in April. But for this flight, he advised them to stay at home, saying "the pressure might be too great" for them at the Cape. The night before the launch, however, a reporter counted a total of 233 cars circling their suburban block.
Six months earlier, Viola Armstrong had been sitting at her kitchen table placing pictures -- most of them of Neil -- in photo albums when she heard the news on TV that Neil was to be the commander for Apollo 11: "A flood of tears gushed from my eyes. There was tumult within me. I sobbed in anguish. Soon I was on my knees in prayer." Over the years since she had given her life to Jesus Christ as a young teenager, she had uttered many fervent prayers, "but never was there a prayer like this one. I had actually heard the announcement with my own ears that our son had been chosen to be on the coming Moon landing team!"
In the months leading up to the launch, Neil's mother and father were "besieged by newsmen of every category," from England, Norway, France, Germany, and Japan. Viola recalled, "Their prying questions ('What was Neil like when he was a little boy?' 'What kind of a home life did he have?' 'Where will you be and what will you be doing during the launch?' etc. etc.) were a constant drain on my strength and nervous system. I survived this only by the grace of God. He must have been at my side constantly."
NASA sent a special protocol officer to Wapakoneta from Huntsville, Alabama. "Tom Andrews was blessed with the most beautiful head of red wavy hair that anyone ever saw," Viola remembered. "Plus he was common like us, so we felt very much at ease with each other. He said, 'Now, Mrs. Armstrong, I'll answer your doorbell, answer your phone, and help you folks in any way that I can.' My! He was welcomed with open arms."
To facilitate their coverage of Apollo 11 from Wapakoneta, the three major TV networks erected a shared eighty-five-foot-high transmission tower in the driveway of the Armstrong house. The Armstrong garage was turned into a pressroom with messy rows of telephones temporarily installed atop folding picnic tables.
Because Neil's parents still had only a black-and-white television, the TV networks gave them a large color set on which to watch the mission. On a daily basis, a local restaurant sent down a half dozen pies. A fruit company from nearby Lima delivered a large stock of bananas. A dairy from Delphos sent ice cream. Frito-Lay sent large cartons of corn chips. A local dairy, the Fisher Cheese Co., Wapakoneta's largest employer, proffered its special "Moon Cheeze." Consolidated Bottling Company delivered crates of "Capped Moon Sauce," a "secret-formula" vanilla cream soda pop. Neighbors and friends contributed delicious foods of the midwest summertime.
The proud mayor of Wapakoneta requested that every home and business display an American flag (and preferably also the Ohio state flag) from the morning of the launch until the moment "the boys" were safely back. Among a few locals, the media spotlight inspired a different kind of civic embellishment. Some told exaggerated stories, even outright lies, about their special connection to the astronaut. Even kids took to spinning yarns: "Listen, my dad is Neil Armstrong's barber!" or "My mom was the first girl ever to kiss Neil!" or "Hey, I chopped down Neil Armstrong's cherry tree!"
Since the Armstrongs' Auglaize County phone number was public knowledge, Tom Andrews arranged to have two private phone lines run into the family's utility room, off the kitchen. Around noontime the day before the launch, Neil called his mother and father from the Cape. "We enjoyed a very pleasant conversation," recalled Viola. "His voice was cheerful, and he said he thought they were all ready for the takeoff the next morning. Daddy said, 'Will you call us again before you leave?' and he said, 'No, I'm afraid I won't be able to call again.' These words were spoken very softly. We asked God to watch over him, and then we had to say 'good-bye.'"
Neil's sister and brother attended the launch. June, her husband, Dr. Jack Hoffman, and their four daughters flew to Florida from their home in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Dean Armstrong, his wife, Marilyn, and their two daughters drove down to Florida from their home in Anderson, Indiana. Both children called their mother and father the day prior to the launch. June said, "Momma, if you feel someone squeezing your hand these days, you'll know it is me." Viola replied, "Oh, thank you, darling. You know I already have one hand in the Lord's hand, and now I have yours in the other. Now I'm sure I can go ahead."
Late that night Neil's wife Janet telephoned Viola to report that she and the boys had not been able to see Neil, but they had talked with him briefly by telephone and had wished him a successful flight. A government car had driven them to see the gigantic rocket spectacularly alit with the spacecraft atop it. Janet told Viola that at dawn they would be heading out onto the Banana River in the corporate yacht. "Janet, too, was full of cheerfulness," Viola remembered. "She felt the crew was ready."
Viola's recall of that extraordinary morning remained sharp until her dying day: "Streets about our house were blocked off. Old Glory was flying everywhere. The weather was quite hot, and the skies were clear and beautiful. Stinebaugh Construction had installed two window air conditioners for our comfort. Tom Andrews guarded our doors and our very selves. Lawmen were at watch outside. Our local WERM radio station had its truck out in front, too. TV and radio personnel were busy setting up their equipment.
"Visitors, neighbors, and strangers gathered around to watch and listen, including my mother, Caroline; my cousin, Rose; and my pastor, Reverend Weber. Stephen and I sat side by side, wearing for good luck the Gemini VIII pins that Neil had given us. For so long I had been talking with my Lord, and for so long He had been giving me strength. It seemed as though there was something around me holding me up. These were tense moments, yet the watchful eye of the Life people was constantly upon us, snapping pictures, especially, I thought, when we were looking our worst. Reverend Weber with his prayers at intervals was most comforting. We all had explicit faith in NASA and our boys, and I had a feeling that our Heavenly
Father was the Supreme Commander over all.... When the final countdown began, I felt someone gentle and firm supporting me right through the liftoff. There was our Neil with Buzz and Mike off on a journey to the Moon!
"It seemed as if from the very moment he was born -- farther back still, from the time my husband's family and my own ancestry originated back in Europe long centuries ago -- that our son was somehow destined for this mission."
Copyright 2005 by James R. Hansen
Excerpted from First Man by James R. Hansen Copyright © 2005 by James R. Hansen.
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