It was a “Where were you when…” moment, the first time a human being set foot on another celestial body. As an achievement, it ranks right up there with Columbus discovering a new world or Magellan successfully circumnavigating around our planet. The only difference is, the entire world got to bear witness to it simultaneously.
As a 12-year-old in 1969, the space program was my life. I followed every Apollo mission, marveling at astronauts willing to sacrifice their lives. But it wasn’t just me, the whole world was watching as Apollo 11 reached the moon. Nothing, before or since, has galvanized this country as the Space Race with the Russians did. It was like a giant game of chess, and we were about to make the final move and declare, “Checkmate.”
July 20 was a Sunday, and the TV networks interrupted regular programming at about 4 p.m. After traveling three days and over 250,000 miles, it was time for the tiny Lunar Excursion Module to be separated from the command module and begin its descent to the Lunar surface. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were piloting the “Eagle” down to the Lunar surface, but nobody was quite sure what might happen when they reached it.
The drama didn’t need any additional commentary from talking head newscasters as Aldrin counted down the craft’s altitude during the most intense two minutes in recorded history. We held our breath trying to imagine the tiny spacecraft approaching the moon, listening intently to Aldrin and Armstrong communicate with the NASA scientists at Mission Control. Finally, after Aldrin told the waiting world, “Engines off,” Armstrong stated, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” At 4:18 p.m., the world could breathe again and cheered in unison.
While Aldrin and Armstrong were preparing for their Moon Walk in a few hours, we were having Sunday dinner at my Uncle Frankie’s house in Lindenhurst. Afterwards, the adults were gathered around the TV, playing cards while I played with my cousins. I kept sticking my head into the living room—a no-no in Italian households while the adults were talking—to keep getting updates. Even though it was summer, it was unusual for family visits to go past 8 or 9 p.m. on a Sunday.
At 10:51 p.m., Armstrong emerged from the safety of the Lunar Module and switched on the video camera positioned on the side of the L.E.M. Instantly, television networks everywhere were broadcasting the grainy, black and white video that was coming from, unfathomably, the surface of the moon.
A ghost-like Armstrong could be seen slowly descending the 9-step ladder, unable to see his feet because of his bulky space suit. It was the most dramatic five minutes in television history.
With more than 500,000 people watching, and another billion listening, Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon, describing the surface dust as “very fine-grained” and “almost like a powder,” before declaring, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I recall watching the intense, yet utter disbelief on the faces of the adults in the room. The silence was deafening as the moment was unfolding. While my younger cousins were still playing and making noise, my older cousins and I joined the rest of the world, witness to an achievement that even 10 years before must have seemed like a pipe-dream.
Although I thought my uncle’s living room would erupt like New Year’s Eve at midnight, it was more like quiet reflection. For the first time in my young life, my Italian relatives were speechless, other than muted mumbling and taking the Lord’s name in vain. The enormity of that moment was greeted with awe, respect and a few tears.
A moment of human achievement that was simultaneously witnessed across the planet, thanks to three brave men who weren’t even on it at the time.
Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a 2018 Press Club of Long Island award winning columnist and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.