On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy woke up in Washington, D.C., and told a joint session of Congress, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
There followed a hectic, eight-year race to beat the Russians to the moon, a virtual second Manhattan Project about which a Marshall Space Flight Center manager would later say, “It was the knowledge that there were so many things that could go wrong that could ruin you,” and a NASA engineer would say, “Alcoholism was very, very prevalent. People were very much depressed.” But they accomplished the mission.
On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin woke up in Cape Canaveral, Florida, boarded a 363-foot-tall rocket weighing 3,000 tons — whose five main engines would produce a combined 7.6 million pounds of thrust — and headed skyward at speeds up to 6,300 miles per hour. Their plan was to carry out Mr. Kennedy’s challenge. This was so long ago that Wernher von Braun was still heavily involved in the space program. (When his previous job ended, in 1945, he had surrendered to the Americans and joined NASA.)
On July 20, 1969, I woke up at 1908 Haste Street in Berkeley, California, where I rented the back porch, and headed east at my customary leisurely pace. My plan was to go up to Telegraph Avenue and waste some time. I did a lot of walking in those days.
For his mission, Mr. Armstrong and the others had squeezed themselves into space suits made by Hamilton Standard, costing around $670,000 apiece.
For my mission, I had thrown on some jeans, probably a bit frayed, possibly from Sears and Roebuck, maybe worth as much as a sawbuck.
This was half a century ago, so the details have faded a bit. What did I pay for the porch, $40 bucks a month? I remember that I had a small, brown Bakelite radio on which I'd listen to “Unshackled” late at night — “stirring accounts of hopeless lives and life-changing hope” — broadcast from the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago. It’s still on the air. True stories to the tune of soap-opera-style organ music.
Anyway, I remember the names of a couple of the other people who lived in the neighborhood of 1908 Haste, but I have no idea whether I was aware of what was going on that day in the neighborhood of the moon — that three guys were up there, looking down on the rest of us.
But, one way or another, I soon found myself staring at history — in living black and white — through the plate-glass window of a shop on Shattuck Avenue, one of the main commercial drags in Berkeley.
Today, having seen the moon-landing footage so many times in subsequent years, it’s easy to forget how stunning that moment was: the first time humans set foot on another heavenly body.
And, 50 years later, that feat has never been equaled. Nor do I think we’ve ever again felt the unity we felt that day.
(Watch the movie “Apollo 11” tonight at 9 and 11 on CNN.)
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.