This is a story I like to tell and since today is the 35th anniversary of what occurred, I’m telling it!
As a prelude, I’ve always thought of myself as a ‘space baby’ because I grew up at the same time the US space program did. I remember my dad showing me our local newspaper with a group portrait of the seven original astronauts and telling me to remember their names because they were going to do great things. In my parochial grade school, we watched the Mercury launches on a TV set up in the cafeteria. The space walks in the Gemini program were a scary thrill. And to this day, I still visit the “Apollo to the Moon” gallery every time I go to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and pay my respects to the three astronauts who died in the Apollo I cabin fire: Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee.
On July 20, 1969, my family and I were in Washington, D.C. We visited the precursor to NASM and saw capsules from the Mercury and Gemini programs. That night, we watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon.
Ten years later, I was living in D.C. and several events had been planned to mark the 10th anniversary of the moon landing. During my run on the Mall that morning, I saw the platform set up in front of the museum for the ceremony involving the astronauts and a host of dignitaries. As I ran past, I could faintly hear one of the speeches. That night, the museum stayed open late, offering visitors a chance to visit the exhibits and watch archival footage.
I was on the fence about going, but my boyfriend, who had other plans that night, urged me to go. When I arrived at the museum, it was like a big party, with people of all ages wandering through the galleries. There were plinths set up in the open area at the center of the museum, with televisions and VCRs showing various clips.
The clip of the walk was scheduled to be shown for the same time as it had happened ten years previously. Prior to that, the tape of the landing on the moon was shown. People were sitting on the floor all over the open area, glued to the televisions. As we heard those words “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed,” tears filled my eyes. I thought I was the only one foolish enough to be so emotionally moved, but I looked around and saw that almost every adult was wiping away tears. Two young boys were next to me with their parents and looking at them, puzzled as to why they were crying. The father said to the boys, “you don’t understand, when this happened, we didn’t know it was going to work.”
The reaction when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and we heard “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” was joyous and when the flag was planted by the astronauts, unabashedly patriotic. Having grown up in the era of the Vietnam War and anti-government protests, I did not expect that everyone would cheer and clap at that moment, but they did.
I’m glad I had the chance to share in that communal commemoration – it was one of the best nights of my life!