Apollo 11... launch day, 40 years ago

It was a fine summer morning in Saginaw, Michigan on the 16th day of July, 1969 and by nine o'clock that morning, most of us kids had already been outside playing for a while. I had no idea that the events that were up-coming would have a profound effect on my life- sure I'd been told a zillion times that history would be made that day, but in the mind of a 12 year old, that meant little.

Although documentaries of the era would have you believe that every place you looked there were hippies on acid with flower face paint ambling around blowing bubbles and angry black people marching down every street and burning buildings as F-4s dropped napalm on hills nearby, but that is as far from the truth as those events were from our neighborhoods. For most of the nation this was a time when most of us were living a much more near Leave It To Beaver existence than the one depicted in the documentaries. Sure- moms didn't wear a dress to do housework and dad was only seen in a suit when going to a funeral, but other than that we were happy and safe. My friends and I played outside totally unsupervised from the time we got out of bed in the morning until the streetlights came on in the evening. We made good use of every second of summer weather. It was an era of plain white T-shirts, Red Ball Jets sneakers, skinned knees and grass stains.

There was no escaping the TV coverage of the Apollo 11 mission as all of the networks had been on the air live since since before dawn. Bergman did some of his best space savvy droning on ABC in contrast to the outward disdain for the space program presented by Chet Huntley and his otherwise indifferent partner David Brinkley on NBC. Over on CBS they had pulled out all of the plugs for this mission. Cronkite had been teamed up for the first time with astronaut Wally Schirra in pairing that would become nearly as legendary as the flights they would cover. All three networks ran the standard clips of the astronauts, eating, suiting and walking out... although a close look at the suit-up would have revealed that the event shown was actually taped during the Countdown Demonstration Test back during the first week of June, (The tell-tale clue to that is that in the "suit-up" footage, the astronaut's suits are missing the Apollo 11 mission patch.) Of course the fine producers at NBC could not resist the urge to temper what excite may be generated and go out and "ask" the "public" what they thought of the mission. So they went out and found that well known Apollo Cheerleader, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy who, of course went on camera to moan about all of those poor and hunnngry people in America, who you'd think were dropping dead in our streets by in bunches, and he then acted as if the cancellation of this mission, at this point would somehow instantly cure all of that. Less than a year later, the producers at NBC and Rev. Ralph would get their wish. The Apollo program would be cancelled and an estimated total of less than $300 million dollars out of the $24 billion invested in Apollo would be returned to the federal coffers and rapidly turned into bureaucratic cellulite. No ghettos would be cured, no extra programs to feed those herds of "The hungry" would appear and thousands of aerospace workers would lose their jobs.

My mom called me to the TV less than two minutes before Apollo 11 lifted off. At the time I was only marginally interested in the space program. I'd watched with a kid's interest, all of the previous flights and now stood by the TV and watched as Apollo 11 counted down to zero. The images of the Saturn V roaring to life were familiar as were the images of the ascent and staging. I recall that as Apollo 11 cleared the tower, my mom said "Oh God... they're taking such an awful chance." I remember looking at her and saying to myself "What chance?" NASA had this all planned out... I thought... so completely that every detail was covered. I recall feeling that my mom's concern just showed that she didn't understand how good NASA was at doing this. When the coverage switched to animation, I went back outside to play.

Things in my world were immediately different from that moment, however. It was like a space program infection had suddenly spread to everyone everywhere. No matter where you looked or who you spoke to the subject of Apollo and spaceflight seemed to pop up. The other kids in my neighborhood played space and space toys of ever sort seemed to come into their possession out of the blue. I went back to my room that evening and got out my model CSM and LM that I'd build with remedial modeling skills. I practiced some docking and undocking and did a lunar landing on my bedroom floor. For the first time in my 12 years of life, I recall having the strong desire to find out more about this and I wanted to do so before the astronauts, now headed toward the moon, arrived there.

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