CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A half-century ago, in the middle of a mean year of war, famine, violence in the streets and the widening of the generation gap, men from planet Earth stepped onto another world for the first time, uniting people around the globe in a way not seen before or since.
Hundreds of millions tuned in to radios or watched the grainy black-and-white images on TV as Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 , in one of humanity’s most glorious technological achievements. Police around the world reported crime came to a near halt that midsummer Sunday night.
Astronaut Michael Collins, who orbited the moon alone in the mother ship while Armstrong proclaimed for the ages, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” was struck by the banding together of Earth’s inhabitants.
“How often can you get people around our globe to agree on anything? Hardly ever,” Collins, now 88, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “And yet briefly at the time of the first landing on the moon, people were united. They felt they were participants.”
He added, “It was a wonderful achievement in the sense that people everywhere around the planet applauded it: north, south, east, west, rich, poor, communist, whatever.”
That sense of unity did not last long. But 50 years later, Apollo 11 — the culmination of eight years of breakneck labor involving a workforce of 400,000 and a price tag in the billions, all aimed at winning the space race and beating the Soviet Union to the moon — continues to thrill.
“Think of how many times you hear people say, ‘Well, if we could land a man on the moon, we could certainly do blah, blah, blah,’” said NASA chief historian Bill Barry, who like many other children of the 1960s was drawn to math and science by Apollo. “It really, I think, has become a throwaway phrase because it gets used so often. It gets used so often because I think it had an impact.”
For the golden anniversary , NASA, towns, museums and other institutions are holding ceremonies, parades and parties , including the simultaneous launch of 5,000 model rockets outside the installation in Huntsville, Ala., where the behemoth Saturn V moon rockets were born. Apollo 11K and Saturn 5K runs are “go” at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
In nearby Titusville, the American Space Museum and local businesses will mark the exact moment of the moon landing by lifting cups of Tang, the powdered orange drink that rocketed into orbit with the pioneers of the Space Age.
Armstrong, who expertly steered the lunar module Eagle to a smooth landing with just seconds of fuel left, died in 2012 at 82. Aldrin, 89, who followed him onto the gray, dusty surface, was embroiled recently in a now-dropped legal dispute in which two of his children tried to have him declared mentally incompetent. He has kept an uncharacteristically low profile in the run-up to the anniversary.
Many of the Apollo program’s other key players are gone as well. Of the 24 astronauts who flew to the moon from 1968 through 1972, only 12 are still alive. Of the 12 who walked on the moon, four survive.
A vast majority of Earth’s 7.7 billion inhabitants were born after Apollo ended, including NASA’s current administrator, 44-year-old Jim Bridenstine, who is overseeing the effort to send humans back to the moon by 2024.
Back in 1961, NASA had barely 15 minutes of human suborbital flight under its belt — Alan Shepard’s history-making flight — when President John F. Kennedy issued the Cold War-era challenge of landing a man on the moon by decade’s end and returning him safely.
At the time, the Soviets were beating America at every turn in the space race, with the first satellite, Sputnik, the first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, and the first lunar probes.
JFK’s challenge struck John Tribe, one of Cape Canaveral’s original rocket scientists, as impossible.
“I was used to facing up to impossible things. We were in the rocket business, so we were doing some weird and wonderful things back in those days. But, yes, it was an unbelievable announcement at that time,” he said. “It took a lot of guts.”
NASA’s Project Mercury gave way to the two-man Gemini flights, then the three-man Apollo program, dealt a devastating setback when three astronauts were killed in a fire during a 1967 test on the launch pad. The pace was relentless amid fears the Soviets would get to the moon first.
Cape Canaveral’s Bill Waldron remembers working “seven days a week, 12 hours a day, six months at a clip” on the lunar modules.
With minutes remaining to touchdown on the moon, Eagle was rattled by one computer alarm then another. Caution lights flashed. But flight controllers had rehearsed that very scenario right before the flight, and so guidance officer Steve Bales knew it was safe to proceed rather than abort.
Then a boulder-strewn crater the size of a football field appeared at the target landing site, and Armstrong had to keep flying, looking for somewhere safe to put down. Aldrin called out the distance to the surface — 75 feet, 40 feet, 30 feet — as Mission Control informed the astronauts of the fuel remaining.
Sixty seconds left. Thirty seconds.
Finally came word from Armstrong: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”