The moon shone brighter this week, all full of itself. Leading up to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, four full moons reminded us just how far we’ve come and gone. Lunar cycles aside, I want to believe the full moons were a wink and nod from the heavens (even from the late Neil Armstrong), saying “back at ya.”
Gazing into space is looking back in time. Today, we reflect on July 20, 1969 when iconic astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins rocketed mankind to the moon’s surface for the first time.
Worldwide, half a billion mesmerized people watched Armstrong and Aldrin bounce around the moon’s pock-marked surface, collecting moon rocks and planting a U.S. flag, while Collins patiently orbited the Earth’s moon in “Columbia,” the command module. It was the largest television audience ever.
NASA’s newly restored Apollo Mission Control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston winds the clock back too—a newly preserved recreation of how it looked on July 20, 1969, when NASA’s crew guided the astronauts to the moon.
Mission Control Center was the command post for Apollo and Gemini missions, including the Apollo 11 lunar landing, ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, 21 Space Shuttle flights, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight. In 1985, it was officially named a landmark on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Shuttered in 1992, the control center withered to a rundown, nostalgic relic until recently renewed by generous grants, donations and a Kickstarter campaign.
A $5 million facelift later, it’s ready for a celebratory closeup as one of NASA’s chosen broadcast centers, along with Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Washington, D.C.
The restored control center returns to its 1960s space-age glory via original and reproduced décor—analog flight control consoles, tube TVs, flight logs, rotary phones, coffee cups, ash trays littered with cigarette butts, scientific binders, pencil sharpeners, and lots of illuminated push buttons. All that’s missing are short-sleeved, genius NASA engineers in nerdy reading glasses. The restoration also included updating oral histories and the lunar mission audio tapes.
Aldrin and Collins reunite this weekend, first in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump, followed by a series official events telecast from the nation’s capital; Seattle where the Apollo 11 command module is displayed; and Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio.
Armstrong, who died in 2012, is the space-sized void on this anniversary. But he’s central to the celebration. The world hasn’t forgotten him. Neither have I.
Along with Martin Luther King, Armstrong was an early hero of mine. I was born during the space age, a couple of years before the Apollo 11 mission. I have no memory of the live lunar landing, but my mother tells me I was present (in her lap), one of 500 million watching the momentous event.
I caught the space bug later. Space was infused into my soul by osmosis in those formative years. Most kids wanted to be astronauts back then. Space ruled pop culture—astronaut Halloween costumes, Tang, Planet of the Apes lunch boxes, Voyager probes, UFO conspiracies, and of course, Star Wars. Space was everywhere. Still is.
I loved observatories, telescopes, The Jetsons, Lost in Space, but inexplicably not Star Trek. I liked the science more than the fantasy. Obsessed with planets and stars, I wanted to become an astronaut or astronomer, before I even knew what these jobs entailed. Space is a vast, dark, fascinating place. Once in awhile, you come across something spectacular. That intrigued me.
Another rewind reminds me of something spectacular on a previous Apollo 11 anniversary. As a Special Projects editor at the University of Delaware’s newspaper (The Review), I planned special sections for two major events—the 1988 presidential election and the 20th anniversary of the NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing in 1989. The election coverage was a cinch, the moon angle was trickier.
What could I say about Apollo 11 that hadn’t already been explored? How could the section stand out? I did what any naive college kid would do—call Neil Armstrong, the original moon walker.
Somehow, I tracked down Armstrong’s phone number, presumably a business office managed by his assistant. I called, prepared to set up an appointment for my big interview. The phone rang and a male immediately picked up:
Me: “Hi, I’d like to speak to Neil Armstrong please.”
I paused in shock, realizing I was speaking to the real Neil Armstrong, the dude who’s humble even after walking on the moon. If it was Twitter, there’d be a check next to this phone call. This is actually the guy who made me want to fly to the moon or Mars. Never mind that I’d hadn’t even flown on an airplane yet. Dangerous rockets? Yeah, maybe I’d pull that off, because Armstrong did.
Armstrong was very nice, even as he politely declined the interview. He rarely gave interviews, and certainly not to a random, overly ambitious, star-struck college kid. He was intensely private.
Next, I tried a Jedi mind trick. I did what my great journalism professor, Chuck Stone (a former Tuskegee Airman and Congressional Gold Medal winner) suggested for reluctant interviews—tell the subject it’s for educational purposes. Stuck out again. Armstrong stood by his principles.
I could tell Armstrong felt slightly guilty saying no thanks to a desperate college kid. He briefly conversed—asked about me, my school and studies. We formed a five-minute bond (in space years, that means a bond only in my head). He said he’d talk to me in Washington, D.C. at the official 20th anniversary celebration in July. That was well beyond my deadline, budget, and college career since graduation was in May. This time, I had to respectfully turn him down. No interview, but at least I scored a memory.
Years later, I’d meet Buzz Aldrin at an event. He’s the charismatic one who enjoyed the spotlight, sucking up the Armstrong-Collins fame vacuum like a black hole. That’s okay. Someone had to take credit for changing the world. Why not him?
I didn’t bring up Armstrong because I read Aldrin was always bitter about being second to walk the moon (he was scheduled to be first but positioning inside the module altered the plan). His ego isn’t small. Why spoil his greatest achievement? After all, only 12 people have walked the moon.
Armstrong passed away August 25, 2012, during a half moon which might as well have been a flag at half staff. To this day, when someone says “speaking,” it reminds me of Neil Armstrong. Ironically, Armstrong rarely spoke on record. He isn’t available today but his sons are at the anniversary commemoration. If they don’t speak for him, I will—since we bonded and all.