What Apollo means to me

By Phil Plait | July 20, 2009 7:00 am

On July 20, 1969, at 20:17:40 GMT, human beings landed on an alien world.

That was the moment that the Eagle lander touched down on the surface of the Moon, 40 years ago today. Nearly five hours later, at 02:56:15 GMT on July 21, Neil Armstrong placed his boot in the lunar regolith, planting it firmly into history as well.

You can read all about this event and its global and historical impacts all over the web, so I won’t belabor the point here. But the Apollo missions mean something special to me, so forgive me this small indulgence. While the overall significance of the missions is interesting and fun to think about and discuss, the real stories, the ones that sink in, are the personal ones.

I was four when Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins approached the Moon. That’s old enough to form memories of the event, but young enough that those memories are malleable; I have a hard time distinguishing what I actually saw with what I may have seen years later on TV. I seem to vaguely remember sitting on the couch with my family watching the events unfold; even at that age I was in love with science fiction and all things spacey. It’s possible my parents let me stay up late to watch that first step. It would’ve been 11:00 p.m. at our old home. But honestly, I don’t remember.

However, just a wee bit over two years later that changed. In July 1971, my parents rented a Winnebago — a monstrous recreational vehicle — and the whole family piled in so we could road trip down to Cape Canaveral. If all went according to plan, we would be there in time to watch Apollo 15 launch and make its way to the Moon.

I was six, so I remember this much better. The bathroom on the RV smelled overwhelmingly like fruit. My sister taught me that it’s OK to lie when you say something if you cross your fingers while saying it. We stopped to visit friends of my mom’s in South Carolina, and again in Georgia so my oldest brother could check out the Georgia Tech campus before applying there the next year.

I have lots of other memories that are trivial to others but which I cherish. But still and all, we finally reached Kennedy Space Center. I remember touring the area, and I also remember being on the tour bus and getting up pretty close to the Saturn V. I wonder now if that’s a distorted memory; it’s hard to imagine they let tourists get as close as my semi-fuzzy recollection indicates.

And then the day arrived. We parked on the banks of the Banana River and waited for the moment. I wandered off a bit to play on my own (times were different then), and I distinctly remember finding a blue plastic kiddie pool upside down on the river bank. I flipped it over, and a billion mosquitoes exploded out of it! Not too surprisingly, that’s one of the stronger memories I have from that day.

And then the moment finally arrived. I remember nothing of the countdown, but boy oh boy do I remember the launch. A man next to me had a camera that he was frantically snapping away with; I remember the noise of the shutter and him winding it, trying to keep up with the rocket lifting off into the sky miles away.

I can still picture the mighty Saturn V as it punched upward. It was magnificent, and even at the age of six I had some idea of what this all meant. I stood there, clutching the little scale model rocket my parents bought me on the KSC tour in one hand, and the blue plastic figurine of an Apollo astronaut standing on the Moon I had in the other. I still remember bringing that plastic model to school for show-and-tell when we got back home.

That memory of the launch is a powerful one for me even today, all these years later. I asked my dad years later what motivated him and mom to pack the whole family up into that RV and take us down there. He replied that it was something he thought we should all see. It was history being made in front of us, and not something you get a chance to see very often.

I asked him that for another reason. My father was a quality control engineer, and did a lot of government contract work. In fact — and this makes me proud, let me tell ya — he worked on the quality control for the astronauts’ food program. I don’t know what precisely he did for the program, to be honest, but he was involved for some time. I know he did some work on the packaging, including the freeze-dried food and the spaghetti the astronauts took with them. That’s why I asked him why we went to see the launch; I wondered if it was because the trip was work-related for him. But it wasn’t. He and mom wanted to share with us the sheer joy and wonder of humanity’s first tentative journey away from Earth.

We should all strive to be such people.

Years later, when my father died, my mom asked all us kids if we wanted any of his books or other items. I stood in front of his bookshelf, admiring the many texts on codebreaking, mathematics, the history of cryptography. He was fascinated by these topics, and was something of a dabbler in math; a formula he invented is published in the CRC handbook used by grad students across the planet.

My eyes fell on a magazine I hadn’t seen before; it was a 25th anniversary retrospective of Apollo. I opened it up, and to my surprise, found this picture:

That’s Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the Moon. Clearly, dad must’ve met him and talked about the food program. Conrad had a great sense of humor, and signed the picture appropriately.

My dad was a major reason I’m a scientist now, and helped instill in me and all my siblings a love of science and space. My memories of Apollo are inextricably entangled with memories of my father from back then too. So to me, Apollo is personal.

I can take a mental step back and look at the whole picture: what that one small step meant, how it inspired a planet, what NASA did that day, and even how its faltered in many ways since then. But sometimes the real story, the human story, is the first-person account of events.

That’s how it plays in my head when I picture that hot July day in 1971, and that mental film is always running when I write about Apollo. It may not be at the forefront of my mind, but it’s there. Even without it I might still be inspired to write what I do. And though I strongly doubt it, I suppose it’s remotely possible that I’d still be where I am today without having had my parents expose me directly to space travel.

But they did. And I’m a better man for having it as a part of me.


Comments (132)

  1. Levi in NY

    Can someone explain to me why this is not a national holiday?

  2. Stone Age Scientist

    Phil, this is a great piece you’ve written. Thanks for sharing the memories.

  3. Sir_Struggle

    1st…….. or not… who cares?

    Trust me Phil, with the amount of work you put in to this hoax nonsense, we can all tell how much it means to you. T-minus 7hours and change ’til touchdown on the kennedy site (for those that have been following it) Let’s hope the next 7 hours are as magical as those that happened 40 years prior.

  4. ZERO

    Will they cancel the Constellation programme?

  5. Charles Boyer

    Phil, please highlight your anti-hoax materials, because the loonies are out in force today.

  6. nobody

    This was a great post man! I really enjoyed reading it :)

    Unfortunately, I don’t have such an inspiring story to share, so I always enjoy reading one like this whenever possible…


  7. We do not know yet when humans will walk again on the moon. When Apollo was closed, it was assumed that there were not going to be any further expedition till the end of 20th century. Now, nine years have elapsed, and, although there are some people talking about 2018, 2020, etc., I am largely skeptical of any date prior to 2025. Nobody has walked on the moon since 1974. Similarly, nobody has been in the Marianas maximal depth in the Pacific Ocean since 1959. It’s like our generation is not capable to reach previous one.

  8. Sir_Struggle

    I still had a couple of years to go before I was born, but of all the firsts I witnessed in my lifetime (The fall of Communism, the end of Apartheid, $5 footlongs) I am most jealous of my sister because she was able to witness the moon landings.

    There is one point that I’ve never seen brought up, that needs to be brought up, especially today.. Why would you WANT to believe that the moon landings were a hoax? It is an event that inspired the whole world (even those who hated us at the time) It is a triumph of man, and should be celebrated as such. Anyone that tries that hard to believe that they are fake can only be a depressed individual, intent on depressing others to give him/her some company.

  9. kid cool
  10. Awesome, thanks. I don’t remember it, but I was born on July 16th, ’68 and my parents swear that I took my first steps on July 20th, ’69. I don’t remember any of the Apollo missions, but my Dad packed us up to see a shuttle launch in the 80s and to the Marshall Center in Huntsville when we were kids and I’ve always kept up with NASA missions, only as an general enthusiast. Thanks for sharing, Phil. Hope we can keep doing such amazing things and creating the same kinds of memories for our children.

  11. Charles Boyer

    I wish that I could have met Phil when he was in Florida for the launch of 15.

    Maybe we did meet, and I don’t remember. I met dozens of kids on Cocoa Beach back then, it was my home and there were always visitors for the launches to play with during the long hours until things got serious. Who knows?

    I was a kid just like he was, and we were near the same spot watching the launch from nearly the same place. Like him, I was in awe, and like him, I had family who were directly involved in the Apollo Project. Dad was out on the Cape maintaining the safety of the pad and the astronauts prior to ignition, and my uncle was in town to work with his team on the S-1C (the Apollo first stage, he was lead engineer for Boeing for it.) My grandfather had just retired as Chief Telemetry Office for MILA, and he was down from his new home in Georgia to see the launch and to spend time with family.

    It was a grand ole time, and I feel for those who never saw a Saturn V leave the surly bonds of the Earth. The Space Shuttle is a bottle-rocket in comparison — they jump off of the ground and say goodbye quickly. A Saturn V, in comparison, would DEFY the launch pad, and slowly head into the sky. They were *extremely* loud, rumbling creatures you could feel deep inside your body as its exhaust shook the ground on which you were standing. It shook your soul too, and made one extremely proud of what men and women could do – and at that moment WERE doing.

    We did great things back then, and we do some great things now. We know more about the universe we live in thanks to the works of the likes of Phil, but at the same time, we’re not trying hard enough. There’s still work to do, and the best part is that it will take forever to do it. Man is just getting started.

  12. Sir_Struggle

    @ #1 Levi

    I can guarantee you that it’s because of the date. If it had fallen in late October instead of July it would be a holiday we were accustomed to celebrating, but the government likes to space the holidays out to ensure equal coverage (hence our continued observance of Columbus Day.)

  13. Canadian Astronomy

    That was a beautiful story! Thanks so much for sharing this with all of us.

  14. Sir_Struggle


    I never saw the Saturn V launch, but I’ve seen the Saturn V. I grew up (and still live) in the SE US, so I’ve seen it in person pointed towards Birmingham, but unfortunately not towards the moon. I witnessed one shuttle launch, but after seeing the Saturn V, I don’t imagine it was anywhere near as awesome.

  15. I have a photo album from my parents when I met astronaut Ron Evans. I has a mission patch, signed portrait, and several photos all 8×10 from the mission probably standard NASA handout stuff.

    But apparently I was three or younger when this happened, I have no memory of the event. Though when my fascination with the space program began in grade school I told everyone he was my uncle until I figured out at an older age what an uncle was for real (IE parent’s brother) and quietly quit saying it. Was kinda embarrassing when I got older to realize I was saying that.

    Later I filled out those blank pages with news clippings of the Challenger’s destruction as well as our return to space. I finally got to tour Cape Canaveral in 1996 while I was in town for some conference. I left the conference in Orlando, drove there, stood out in the rocket park in a torrential downpour soaked to the bone but I saw everything I could in the three hours I had.

    It was probably what some people refer to a religious experience for me, and I didn’t even get to see a launch which is something I always have wanted to do.

  16. Chris G

    As a 10 year old, I informed my parents that, when the Apollo 11 launch date was set, I was not going to summer camp, if it meant missing the launch and the landing. To the camp’s credit, they set up huge 26″ televisions in the hayloft of a barn for all us campers to witness the events.

    Thanks for your story, Phil. It gives a wonderful and different perspective on the importance of this day for the human race.

  17. Charles Boyer

    Tom B, I highly recommend going to Florida to see one of the remaining Shuttle launches. Go early – a day or two at least – and take the tour. You will most probably be taken to the observation deck near the Pad 39 launch complex and get to see the bird in her nest. Even though it will look quiet out there, you will know that it is a hive of activity and work. With binoculars, you can see that happening as well.

    On launch day, go and see the festivities from the Causeway. Tickets are available through the KSC Visitor’s Center website long in advance, or from Grey Line Tours in Orlando.

    It is an incredible thing to witness.

  18. Orthokchc

    I made today my own holiday. Just too much to see and do today to go to work. I currently watching NASA TV. There are two more NASA TV specials, TCM is having a Moon movie marathon. There are many other programs today. A plan to go to the American Museum of Natural History and see moon rock and probably buy Astronaut ice cream. Phil I will think of your father and my own father.

    About the Moon hoax there is a nice piece in Wired that links to Bad Astronomy and other sites.


    Finally shame on Google for not saluting today.

  19. the bug guy

    I was five (a few months short of six) at the time. My family had recently moved to Florida and we could watch the launches from our front lawn looking out over Lake Eustis. We gathered at the shore with a transistor radio. I remember seeing the television coverage of the landing and playing with a paper model of the LEM (you can find a scan of the model from Gulf at the Project Apollo Archive www(dot)apolloarchive(dot)com). Because the moonwalk was late in the evening, I fell asleep and refused to wake back up. I remember being disappointed the next morning about missing it.

  20. PJE

    Very sweet story Phil.


  21. dhtroy

    That was an excellent story Phil, thanks for sharing that slice of your life with us.

  22. I was fortunate to be living in Titusville, FL during that whole time period and got see all of the Apollo launches across the Indian River. My dad worked at NASA as a mathematician and he was also an amateur photographer and took some stunning pictures of the launches.

  23. Adrian Lopez

    “I wandered off a bit to play on my own (times were different then) …”

    Actually, Phil, parents were different then.

  24. Sir Eccles

    @ #12 Sir_Struggle

    Hmm, perhaps the unfortunate timing with regard to spacing out the national holidays is a roundabout proof that it must be real! If they had faked it, don’t you think they would have chosen a better time of the year so that they could memorialize it with a national holiday???

  25. MartyM

    That’s great! I had very supportive parents as well, and I too can attest to how that helped me aspire to and achieve what I havel. If only all parents were like that…

  26. Ubermoogle

    Phil, you need to put a “bawwwwww” or “sappy” tag on these sorts of posts. Defintely made me a bit misty.

    Beautiful story.

  27. OtherRob

    I grew up in central Florida and was on the Cape for the launch of Apollo 16 and the first two shuttle missions. I barely remember the Apollo launch — I remember it more as a “big event” that happened to me than the launch itself. I was in high school for the shuttle launches so I remember those better. :)

    25ish years later my mom was living in Huntsville, Alabama, and on one of my visits we went to the Space and Rocket Center. And in the middle of the display floor was the command module of Apollo 16. We’d seen it blast off for the moon and there it was sitting right in front of us. I still get chills thinking about it.

  28. Peter F

    Great personal story, Phil. Thanks for this site and for all you continue to do to remind people what a fantastic achievement the moon landings were, arguably the most impressive thing humanity accomplished, as a species. It was our finest moment, and it’s tragic that some want to insist that it couldn’t have happened.

    I was about to turn two when Apollo 11 made it to the Moon. My father, a USAF Captain and jet pilot in the USAF, made sure to sit me in front of a TV for the coverage at our home at Pease AFB in New Hampshire. I wish I could say I remembered the event, because my father’s enthusiasm for NASA and space exploration colored my later childhood and the rest of my life. Even as a kindergartner, my bedroom was papered with clippings about space probes, solar system discoveries and our astronauts.

    I still get choked up every single time I see the footage of that one small step, and I’ve seen it many times…

  29. madge

    Great moments in history can easily become dehumanised unless they are related to the lives of real people. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and letting it touch us all.

    On a lighter note and definitely NSFW!!!!…



  30. @Didac,

    Wasn’t the last Moon landing in 1972, not 1974? (Wikipedia says: “The mission was launched at 12:33 a.m. EST on December 7, 1972, and concluded on December 19. It remains both the most recent manned moon landing and manned flight beyond low Earth orbit.”)

    I’ve been really saddened today, because it just struck me that we haven’t gone to the Moon in my entire lifetime. I’m turning 34 in two weeks and my entire life hasn’t seen a single man go above low Earth orbit. Sure, robots are cool and all. And they do some wonderful, amazing stuff. But it just seems to me that robot rovers can’t compare to actual humans walking around up there. I really hope that we go to the Moon again before my sons (currently 5 and 2) are too old.

  31. rob

    Phil, your posts about the apollo missions made me stop to think about my recollections. i was 2 1/2 when the eagle landed, so don’t have any memories. i do however, have vague recollections of watching launches at my grandparents home. i figure they must have been some of the later missions in the early 70’s. perhaps i even saw the 15 launch on t.v. that you saw live!

    the moon missions (and later viking missions) all instilled in me an appreciation for the natural world and science. they are one of the reasons i am a scientist today.

    happy moon launch day everyone!

  32. Bob Portnell

    “Conrad had a great sense of humor…”

    Understatement of the Month at least. Conrad was utterly irrepressible, from his Gemini “eight days in a garbage can” line to setting foot on the moon with “That may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” And on into Skylab, of course. The man did solid work and knew how to have fun with it at the same time.

  33. Thanks Phil. That may be my favourite post so far.

    In July ’69 I was four and a half. The biggest thing that happened to us that year was we got our first TV. We lived on a farm out in the bush and one day we came home and a television and antenna were sitting on the verandah. They did that in those days, deliver and leave expensive electrical items on the front porch. I can’t imagine it happening now. There’s only a couple of things I have a vague recollection of watching in glorious black and white. Football, Apollo and Vietnam on the news. Like Phil I can’t distinguish between my actual memories and what I saw on television over the following years. The details to a four year old aren’t important. It is the impressions those defining moments leave that counts.

    Funny, we were all so far apart that day. All over the world and 400000 km away on the moon. But on that day we were one. We shared a moment… for a little while.

    Thanks again Phil

  34. You and me both. I too was 4 years old when they landed on the moon. We all lived in Clear Lake City and my father was an Electronics Engineer working at NASA. We all went down to our neighbor’s house because they had a large color TV and we only had a black and white one. All our neighbors were there when they landed. I remember they didn’t get out and the terrible wait and realization that it wasn’t going to be until night time before they would. I really don’t remember if I was able to stay up until they got out of the LEM, but I seem to think I would have been way too excited to get any sleep for a four year old.
    And.. BTW, I too was at Cape Canaveral for Apollo 15. We drove from Houston and pulled our pop up camper and camped on the beach. My dad had hooked up a small black and white TV to an inverter and hooked it up to a battery system and we had it showing the TV feed in our camper during the launch. That was high tech back then. I’ll never forget it.

  35. That’s quite a powerful and emotional piece of writing, Mr Plait. Congratulations!

    The Apollo 11 mission is one of the reasons I became a physicist, too. Though I wasn’t yet born at the time, my dad kept the newspapers and special issue magazines of the day. I spent most of my childhood poring over those and wondering how awesome everything must have been.

  36. I was 17 and had the night shift as lifeguard at the local country club pool in small town North Texas. I did not want to miss the moon landing so I took my portable black and white TV. No one came to the pool that night, so I sat alone under the big clear Texas sky watching the historic event. The moon was full and I couldn’t help but look up at the moon then at my TV. In my naive innocence I thought the world was brought together that night. It was indeed a lifechanging event for me. I never understood how quickly the interest waned. I was hoping that by now we would have joined the galactic family!

  37. A great read Phil thanks for sharing – inspiring.

  38. Kevin

    Thanks for writing this Phil. I remember last week reading on your Twitter fed that you were having reservations about doing something, and I’m glad you did. I don’t think there can be enough words written about the events of today, the Apollo missions and NASA in general and space travel and exploration.. It’s something that inspires us, and hopefully it can inspire others do continue to look up, and want to reach for the stars. The world needs that inspiration.

    While I wasn’t fortunate enough to see a launch back then, I was fortunate in the fact that my father recognized my enthusiasm for space, and always made sure that I saw what I could, either on television for the space missions, or waking me up during the night for lunar eclipses and meteor showers.

    For Apollo 11’s landing, we were visiting my cousins. I still remember us laying on the floor, staring transfixed at the television as Neil and Buzz brought the Eagle in to land. I recall our parents sitting behind us talking in excited tones. What they said – I don’t remember… my cousins and I were staring at the television, not wanting to blink for fear we’d miss something.

    When we found out that there was going to be an interminable wait (well, for a bunch of little kids, it was) for the astronauts to go outside , our parents made us take a nap for a while. I remember being threatened that if we didn’t sleep, we wouldn’t get to see the astronauts step on the moon. But hours later, we were back on the living room floor, staring up at the television again with the same level of excitement and wonderment.

    And like many others, I still get choked up seeing the footage, and remembering that awesome day way back then.

  39. Markus

    Pete was awesome. I still miss him a lot.

  40. Phil, thanks for sharing. Like OtherRob (#27) I was there for STS-1, the first Columbia launch. In fact, my story’s similar to Phil’s–I’m the son of a NASA employee, and while my dad’s work by that point didn’t have anything directly to do with the space program (combustion diagnostics), he still thought it was important for us to be exposed to that moment in history. Probably the reason I’m still a big space geek today.

  41. The vikings reached america. Pacific islanders probably did many times (but never came back). There’s a chance the chinese did before the europeans. The difference is they went and never went back.

    Doing it once (or 4 times) is meaningless if we never do it again many times, and if we find a way to do it in a sustainable fashion.

    I suspect that just as the new world gave the old world a chance of reevaluating their relationship with their own people and reinvent government and society, the moon and mars might be the opportunity we need to rethink our relationship with our own planet. Any moon base must be self contained, use only renewable energy sources and create a living closed ecossystem for recycling oxigen, water and everything. This might be or learning tools for us to do the same with our own planet.

  42. Hey Phil, I’ve eaten your dad’s spaghetti (or a derivation thereof) within the last week! I was running late for work and had run out of the meals I usually bring, so I grabbed the boxed “Freeze Dried Space Meal” that we picked up at KSC last year. It had 3 pouches containing spaghetti with meat sauce, an ice cream sandwich, and strawberries. Pretty darned good stuff!

    Thanks for sharing this touching personal story. Your blog posts are always worth reading, but this is something really special. 40 years ago today I was busy being a fetus, so I missed out on all of the excitement (clearly poor prioritization on my part!).

    I hope to see you again at Dragon*Con in September!

  43. Habu

    Thanks for the story Phil!

  44. Thanks for writing this, Phil. My dad took me to see Space Shuttle Challenger when she passed through Colorado Springs riding piggy back on an airplane in 1984 (ish) on its way from Edwards to Kennedy. I’m pretty sure he took us for the same reasons your dad took you to see that launch.

  45. Dave

    Like many others, I’d like to thank you for sharing that with us. Great memories, and a great post!

    I was 10 at the time Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon, but here in the UK it was 3.56am summer time. I worked on my mother for hours, till she agreed (gave up and agreed, I think) that I could stay up to watch it. I was the only one in my family who was still awake to watch that first step, not that it mattered – I spent the whole time 6 inches from the TV, and all anyone else would have seen was the back of my head.

    Lots of Apollo-related stuff on TV tonight, so I’m going to be watching most of it while waiting for the exact, t0-the-minute 40th anniversary of that unique moment. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ll be raising a glass or cup of whatever I’m drinking at the time as a toast to the Apollo missions, and everyone involved in them.

  46. Utakata

    …well, least he didn’t sign it, “Thanks for all the fish.” :)

  47. Cindy

    I was barely two in ’69 so don’t remember the launch. I do remember watching one of the later launches on TV at school. I also vividly remember being very confused in first through 3rd grade while singing the “Star Spangled Banner” with the line “rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air” because I thought it meant a Saturn V rocket had blown up and I knew that wasn’t very good and wondered why we sung about it.

    My mom tells the story she remembered being very concerned when hearing about the computer issues during the landing of Apollo 11 because my dad worked on the rendezvous radar of the LEM. And she got angry when she heard that Armstrong or Aldrin didn’t turn it off when they were supposed to. Of course the computer got overloaded if it was trying to simultaneously land and take off at the same time!

    Thanks for the story, Phil. We never got down for a rocket launch, but we did tour Kennedy Space Center when I was four. Don’t remember going into the Vehicle Assembly Building – I think to a four year old there’s not much difference between a huge building and a really huge building.

  48. Jason Wilson

    This settles it, if I have my way, my family and I will be there when Constellation lifts off, every single one.

  49. raynia

    you stupid americans still believe they landed on the moon?its a hoax u idiot from your own government for stupid people like u!!! it has been a joke for us in our country!! they never land on the moon ..go check out yourself!

  50. RichW

    I was 12 at the time of the landing.

    Just to set the stage for you all, at this time any news report in the USA that was broadcast live from overseas had the impressive caption “live via satellite”. It was such a big deal. So imagine what it was like to watch the fuzzy black and white TV images with the caption “live from the Moon”. It just blew everyone away.

  51. I was working at the roundhouse for the railroad of a local mining company near Salt Lake City on the night of the Moon landing. I was 19 going on 20.
    Everybody was glued to the B&W television, except for me — I was working constantly, my boss made sure of it as he resentfully got up from his seat and checked up on me every 15 minutes.
    The whole thing was ‘punishment’ for my having long hair and being younger than everyone else. I had been excited for days, since Apollo 11 took off, and my hard, hot, experience was treated as some kind of joke by the whole crew — bastards thought they were really funny that night. I did sneak a look or two at the landing anyway, and endured the abuse.
    The point of this story is avoid ‘generation gaps’ at all costs — they are not humorous in the least, and are corrosive to the society where they occur. I am ashamed that much of the alternative press and media, which fawned over ‘Woodstock’ the following month, were stupidly dismissive of this great event at the time too, because it was somehow associated with ‘the establishment.’

    I personally benefited greatly from technology produced by the Space Program, and eventually made a living from related fields. The Moon race changed MY life very much for the better!

  52. Jeff

    @techy: “I’ve been really saddened today, because it just struck me that we haven’t gone to the Moon in my entire lifetime. I’m turning 34 in two weeks and my entire life hasn’t seen a single man go above low Earth orbit. Sure, robots are cool and all. And they do some wonderful, amazing stuff. But it just seems to me that robot rovers can’t compare to actual humans walking around up there. I really hope that we go to the Moon again before my sons (currently 5 and 2) are too old.”

    You think like me. I was around and remember watching all the Apollos. I remember the big letdown when they cancelled it and went into the boring (to me boring beyond description) shuttle instead of building a moon base up there. What a huge blunder. I think NASA just used those 12 astronauts for political purposes, and when it was over, just abandoned it. I , at least, won’t be around when they get back. Had they been serious about it, they would have built more Saturns, kept launching as many moon missions as shuttles, and then we’d have cities up there now. And now I expect the apologists on the blog to contradict this….

  53. Papa Surf

    On this day, forty years ago, my folks stamped my infant footprints into a baby book as they watched Neil Armstrong stamp his footprints onto the moon. I was six weeks old. It is a little treasure I have, not just for commemorating the moon landing but also a tribute to my great parents.

  54. Joe Alvord

    Thanks Phil for the recollection. I was traveling through the west with my family and happened to be camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with no TV for 100 miles. One guy in the campground had a tiny portable radio and about 50 campers crowded around listening. It is one of my clearest memories listening to the first moon walk and looking up at the extremely bright moon overhead. Actually looking at he moon as it was happening was pure magic that I would have missed if I had been watching TV.
    Thank you again Phil for helping bring it all back.
    (Also thank you Neil, Buzz, and Michael for the heroes you were and are.)

  55. DrFlimmer

    Excellent story! Thanks for sharing it!

    I wonder what the space walkers will do during the EVA to celebrate the small step. Hopefully nobody steps away from the ISS 😉

  56. wright

    A touching essay, Phil. Thanks to you and your Dad for sharing it with us.

  57. Becky WS

    Wonderful post Phil.

    I was born in 1981, so for me growing up, Apollo was ancient history, a (sadly) brief note in science class. However I have always felt great regret that I was not alive and able to appreciate that moment, though every space-related development that I’ve been able to follow I’ve found extremely exciting and historic in their own way.

    I watched a fantastic BBC documentary a couple of weeks ago (“Man on the Moon”) all about the Apollo program with original tv footage, which had an extended launch sequence that actually had me in tears from the awesomness of the Saturn seeming to barely inch off the ground and then powering upwards, and the sheer incredible feeling of being part of humanity’s journey as a species.

    One of my greatest ambitions is to see a launch, and I hope that it’s as mind-blowing as the Saturns were.

  58. Dear Phil,
    For us Indians so far away across the world, it was the Voice of America radio broadcast on the day that had me hooked. As a gawky teenager fascinated with western music, VOA was the station that was on in the mornings and Dad listened to the news at 7.30 am. That day, we listened instead to the live broadcast and even 40 years later, I recall Neil Armstrong’s voice with crystal clear clarity. Indeed that was a moment that united the world like never before. Later, we saw the grainy 16mm movie of the Apollo landings screened at the American Information Center. I remember waiting for hours in a mile long line before getting to see it. People watched with absolute wonder at the screen and I wanted to see it again, but it was late. Particularly for people in the Third World, the moon landing was a technological triumph. Thanks for your great site.

  59. Apollo Roll call

    These were the vanguard – The names of the Apollo astronauts for those who don’t already know : (brackets indicate number of Apollo mission eg. Apollo 12 was Pete Conrad’s flight.)


    Neil Armstrong (11)
    Buzz Aldrin (11)

    Pete Conrad (12)
    Alan Bean (12)

    Al Shepherd (14)
    Ed Mitchell (14)

    David Scott (15)
    Jim Irwin (15)

    John Young (16)
    Charlie Duke (16)

    Gene Cernan (17)
    Harrison Schmitt (17)


    Michael Collins (11),
    Richard Gordon (12),
    Stuart Roosa (14),
    Alfred Worden (15),
    Thomas Mattingly (16)
    Ronald Evans (17)

    APOLLO 13

    Jim Lovell
    Jack Swigert
    Fred Haise

    The Tests & Rehearsals

    Apollo 1 – Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee & Ed White (RIP –killed by fire during test 204.)

    Apollo 7 – Wally Schirra (RIP), Don Eisele & Walter Cunningham

    Apollo 8 – Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, & William Anders

    Apollo 9 – James McDivett, David Scott & Russell Schweickart

    Apollo 10 – Gene Cernan, Tom Stafford & John Young

    (My apologies – and please let me know – if any of these names or details are incorrect. I’m pretty sure I’ve got them all right. Yes, Aldrin’s first name is officially Buzz – he changed it by deed poll from Edwin.)

    They accomplished so much, so magnificently.

    Most are still with us – sadly Pete Conrad, Jim Irwin & Jack Swigert have since passed away – and all are truthful, fantastic human individuals. As too are all the thousands of others who worked to make the Apollo missions the furthest and perhaps best achievement in all human history.

    Who will follow their footsteps in the charcoal grey lunar regolith – and when?

    When will the first woman on the Moon land?
    When will the first astronomer set foot there?
    When will the first Lunar colony be established?

    So much still to do … Lets hope & work to see it gets done!

    PS. Thankyou Dr Phil Plait for telling us about your memories here & thanks for your superb blog too. :-)

  60. Great story, Phil!
    I keep thinking, though, that Armstrong was the wrong choice to be the first to moonwalk. What NASA needed was an ambassador for the Moon. They needed an outgoing public speaker eager to do EPO.

    What they got was almost a hermit. Ow! There, I’ve said it. But it’s true. Neil Armstrong didn’t want to be defined for the rest of his life by that one accomplishment, but it was inevitable. He was the right choice for mission commander and LEM pilot, for sure, but he may have been the wrong guy to be the first to set foot on the Moon. He has (largely) hidden from public view for 40 years. It’s like he died up there or something.

    Buzz Aldrin would’ve been much more like what NASA needed. He’d have talked to school kids, talked at senior citizen’s centers, talked to everybody! He’d have related the excitement of his experience to the taxpayers who made it all possible. There would have been documentaries on PBS, TV appearances of all kinds, you name it. You need someone with the gift of gab, a public speaker to carry the NASA banner forward.

    The taxpaying public feels a disconnect from the space race and has even (in part) decided it didn’t happen. Holy schistosomiasis! We need someone in space now who can communicate the excitement of space travel.

    So I think I know who should be the -NEXT- American to set foot on the Moon.
    It needs to be someone who isn’t afraid to talk to people about the experience.
    It needs to be someone who can write about it clearly and effectively.
    It needs to be someone who can communicate well.
    It needs to be Phil Plait.

  61. LuanneO'Neill

    I remember watching the landing on an old black and white console TV when I was 6 years old. I don’t remember a whole lot of detail from that long ago but I do this. It was one of the defining moments in my life that led me to study science in college and make it my career…my life-long love. I remember wanting to be an astronaut, like most kids my age at the time, but being a girl I didn’t think I had much chance. Three years ago, while sorting through my father’s effects after his death, I came across an original Charlotte (NC) Observer dedicated to the Apollo 11 moon landing (I just posted pictures of it to my Face Book site). Imagine how thrilled I was! I cherish it for two reasons. One because it was my father’s and signified his life-long love of science and two because it is a tangible part of my past…a part of all of our pasts. The Apollo moon landings still inspire me. They have inspired me to share my love of science with the thousands of students I have taught over the last 20+ years. I am a science nerd…a space nerd…and damn proud of it!

  62. Todd Peterson

    Man has never been on the moon. it is all a hoax.

  63. A question

    @ 57 Apollo Roll Call:

    What happened to Apollo’s 2 to 7?

    Didn’t they have any astronauts – or were they the flights with chimpanzees? Weren’t there a couple of monkey flights?

  64. BigBadSis

    Not only is it okay to lie if you cross your fingers, but did I ever tell you that if you press a spoon into your temple while drinking a glass of water you can cure your hiccups? I got all that good stuff from one of our older brothers and must have been a good big sister and passed it down to you.

    Mom’s here visiting and I read your post out loud to her. We had a good cry. You’re such a good boy.

    I’m uplifted to read personal stories of how the Apollo missions inspired kids to become scientists later in their lives. I believe that excitement and motivation exists today in the NASA programs. It’s up to parents to show our kids how awesome these new discoveries are. For instance, NASA TV’s coverage during the Hubble repair mission, the documentary made before hand, and the images on the “Big Picture” were amazing. How exciting was that?!

  65. Those days always live in my mind. We worked so hard to try and be safe and well trained. I have a framed dollar bill that was on the moon and signed by the Apollo 15 crew and given to me for helping in their training. And now our country is way down the list in science and math. I fear for what the good life and greed for money and toys has brought us.

    Island Frank

  66. Nail

    deleted by author

  67. TS

    I was only two and bit when Apollo 11 wrote history. Yet, as a child I had some vague memories about the events as happening during a chaotic camping holiday with my family.

    Only years later did I realise that my memories consisted of images from the film Trafic by Jacques Tati. :-)

  68. Today is a great day to watch television and to be online. Throughout the day specials will be presented that recount the activities that led up to the first human walking on the moon. This is the 40th anniversary of the moon landing and a great chance to take a peak back in time.

  69. FrankC

    The Apollo program and its lunar landings were the pinnacle of a great nation’s commitment to a larger than life goal.

    Several events in that decade made Apollo 11 possible: the Sputnik, the Soviet threat, Kennedy’s challenge to place a man on the moon and return him safely and his subsequent assassination. The same generation that ended a world war rose to the occasion. In the face of seemingly insurmountable technical, political, and physical obstacles, their blind faith, willing acceptance of risk, and an ethos that is increasingly uncommon today, were all the tools needed to do the impossible.

    Many generations are likely to come and go until a similar confluence of events unites mankind in such and ambitious goals and incredible accomplishments.

    I am grateful to have lived during this monumental period in the history, proud of my country and thankful to the men who took risks for the betterment of all.

  70. Bill

    Phil – what wonderful memories of your Dad. Thanks for sharing them.
    (Skeptics are cold and unfeeling? Ha!)

    I was seven years old when the Eagle landed. We lived in North Carolina at the time, and I honestly don’t remember nearly as much as I’d like to about the event. I remember watching on our small black and white TV (my father set his 35mm camera up on a tripod and took photos of the televised landing – an early poor man’s Tivo!) and having my mind boggled. I also clearly remember standing outside that night and looking at the moon in the sky, thinking that two men were ON that thing! I even remember shining a flashlight up at the moon and waving it from side to side, hoping that the astronauts could see the flash of my light when they looked back at Earth.

    Over the next couple of years, we’d frequently go to Florida for summer vacations, and toured the Cape more than once. We finally got down to see a launch when 17 took off, since we knew it would be our last chance to see an Apollo launch. We brought our tent and camped on the beach. I remember being disappointed at how far we were from the pad – the Saturn booster looked like a toothpick. All that changed when the engines lit and we not only saw and heard, but felt the power of that blast, even from that far away. To this day, I have no words for that experience.

    To bring my live experience of spaceflight full circle, a friend and I drove from Arizona to California to watch the first shuttle landing that the public was able to attend.

  71. StevoR

    Thanks BA for sharing that excellent childhood memory. You are so lucky! :-)

    I wish I were able to say I’ve seen a spacecraft launch … Its one of my life’s ambitions to see one.

    I was born in 1973 – and like another person – probably many (most even?) commenting here in my entire life Humanity has gone no further than Near-Earth Orbit – at least not in person. Robots like Voyager and the Mars rovers are great and all but somehow just not quite the same …

    I saw the very first space shuttle .. well .. countdown .. the all-white ‘Columbia’ the reusable spaceplane that promised so much and, was so awesome, yet never quite delivered. I stayed up for hours way past my bedtime as a small boy to see a launch that never happened – because of a computer glitch. That’s my first memory of anything space-exploration~wise back in 1980~ish.

    But it didn’t put me off – I remember being impressed awe-struck with it, this marvel that meant The Future. That meant we’d all be on Mars well before that magical year 2000!

    I was absolutely inspired and astounded by the ‘Voyager II’ spaceprobe flying past Neptune, “our solar systems other blue planet”, 20 years ago in August 1989. The transformation then from this world that we knew so terribly little about into a marvellous globe and its retinue of new found moons and rings with its deep-blue colour, an Earth-sized dark spot storm, the cryrovolcanoes and “cantaloupe terrain” on Triton .. that got me really hooked – enough to do a WEA course and become an amateur astronomer myself.

    I’ve listened as Australian astronaut, Adelaide born, Andy Thomas flew up on the shuttle ‘Discovery’ when comet Hyakutake was in the sky back in 1996 – listened because I was then on an astrocamp in the Flinders ranges.

    And, of course, I remember too the ‘Challenger’ and ‘’Columbia’ tragedies. Another story in itself that, the sad side of space exploration but also too a case of brave people giving their lives for something they believed in – who died doing what they loved and knowing the risks and who would, I feel sure, want us to go on into space and into flying more, risking more, living more! They would not have wanted the subsequent stalling – would’ve hated the delays in returning to flight and all the carping criticisms of those mean minded types who hate space exploration and science generally.

    I’d love to see a manned space launch live. But the shuttle ends in 2010 and I’m too broke to travel to America for one. I’ll miss the shuttles even if they never did live up to expectations.

    What will replace them and when? I’d like to have a confident answer … a set date, a machine well under construction & no overlap. No time when the West can’t make LEO with people aboard.

    I used to think that for sure I’d get to travel in space personally.

    I like to think I’ve still got the outside chance of that.

    I used to be certain that within my lifetime we’ll be back on the Moon – and on to Mars and well beyond. That the sort of progress that took us from Sputnik in 1957 to Apollo in 1969 and, even more dramatically, from the Wright brothers first powered flight to the Moon landings in a human lifetime would see us far far further and more accomplished than we have been. I do fear we are failing and falling behind.

    I truly think that Apollo was the greatest triumph in all Human history – a peaceful, scientific venture, an exploration of our limits driven by focused, brilliant, courageous, ingenious, properly funded, properly adored, highly intelligent people working together for national pride – but also transcending it.

    But now I hope this isn’t being turning into a huge missed opportunity, a sort of semi-tragedy really because of our short-sightedness, our narrow-minded bean-counting obsession with money and risk and PR and PC and all the petty dreary things that have sapped our will and taken away our vision. Not least the insane and unnecessary wars in Vietnam and Iraq and the US funding & supporting Israel’s Occupation of Palestine.

    Let’s all work to make this day really mean something by going further. Let’s press for a set goal by a set date – before this next decade is out to have a colony on Luna or Mars, to have landed on a Near-Earth Asteroid and maybe even Mercury!

    Let’s set aside a reasonable proportion of our national budget for space exploration – for another modern day Apollo program – that’s currently wasted on burning money on wars, funding politicians and corporations unduly or suchlike. (If we bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and stop funding Israel we’ll be there surely!?)

    Let’s make it happen – have another Apollo type program and show that we can still do this. And more.

    That’s my dream, my hope, I hope I’m not alone in this. That if enough people push for it to happen, it will. Can we do it? To quote Barack Obama :

    Yes we can! 8) (I think.)

    PS. I second the suggestions that this day be declared a public holiday – both in the USA and Australia (my nation) & that the Bad Astronomer be nominated to be the first astronomer on the Moon! 😉

  72. FrankC

    The Apollo program and the lunar landings were the pinnacle of a great nation’s commitment to a larger than life goal. Several events in that decade made Apollo 11 possible: Sputnik and the Soviet threat, Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon and return him safely, and his subsequent assassination. These events emboldened leaders in industry and government on a path from which there was no detour, no retreat.

    The same generation that ended a world war accepted this challenge. In the face of seemingly insurmountable technical, political, and physical obstacles, blind faith, acceptance (and ignorance) of risk, and an ethos that is increasingly uncommon today were all the tools needed to do the impossible. Many generations are likely to come and go until a similar confluence of events occurs that unites mankind in achieving similar feats.

    I am grateful to have lived during this monumental period in history, proud of my country and thankful to the men who took risks for the betterment of all.

  73. FrankC

    The Apollo program and the lunar landings were the pinnacle of a great nation’s commitment to a larger than life goal. Several events in that decade made Apollo 11 possible: Sputnik and the Soviet threat, Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon and return him safely, and his subsequent assassination. These events emboldened leaders in industry and government on a path from which there was no detour, no retreat.

    The same generation that ended a world war accepted this challenge. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, blind faith, acceptance (and ignorance) of risk, and an ethos that is increasingly uncommon today were all the tools needed to do the impossible. Many generations are likely to come and go until a similar confluence of events occurs that unites mankind in achieving similar feats.

    I am grateful to have lived during this monumental period in history, proud of my country and thankful to the men who took risks for the betterment of all.

  74. Linda

    Thanks, Phil, for this memory. It brought tears to my eyes.
    I was 9 (nearly) when I sat in my living room in Island Park, Long Island, and watched the Eagle land and Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the surface of the moon. An amazing feat of human courage and intellect.

    Some “friends of friends” on Facebook have been making denying statements, and I’ve done my best to rectify them. Frustrating, let me tell you.

    Anyway, I have been a lurker and fan. You are amazing.

  75. mike burkhart

    I was only 1 year old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon but I read about it all the time as a kid I have all the national geographic magazines about the Apollo landings and even played a video game called Lunar Lander in witch you hade to land on the moon as many times as you can before runing out of fuel in seeing the real landing I found it was nothing like the sci fi movies about (althro when Apollo 11 set down it had only a little fuel left the movie Destnation Moon the ship usese to munch fuel landing and have to dump everything overbord to lighten the ship for the trip home,I’m glad Armstrong and Aldern did’nt have to do this) I do regret that we have not gone back to the moon or don’t have a base ther I feel the moon would be the perfict place for an observatory and the back side for a raido telescope array .

  76. Gary


    Apollos 2 through 6 were unmanned test launches of the various rocket components that went into the Saturn V. Lest you get confused about testing a rocket after scheduling a manned flight on it, Apollo 1 was seated atop a Saturn IB rocket, as was Apollo 7. The first manned launch of the Saturn V rocket was Apollo 8.

    Also, I agree that this should be a national holiday. Or at least something that gets put on the darn calendar!

  77. Grisha

    Such wonderful memories everyone, and thank you most of all to Phil.

    I was 8 years old. My family and I had returned to Ohio after living in Florida for several years. My earliest memories were of space – and of the state where those big rockets took off. My dad’s best friend from High School had left for Houston years before. Gary worked GNC on Apollo 11, if I recall correctly, as he did for the rest of Apollo. He later became a shuttle flight director for missions all the way up to the Mir dockings. I’m named for him as well as the first American in space.

    Little “Gary Alan” remembers that little black and white TV and staying up late. I also remember someone saying “they are going to sink in the dust when they land!” And me saying “No they won’t, they know what they are doing.”

    Little skeptic even then.

    The feeling I got from that mission, and those that preceded and followed helped make me who I am. That this occurred during a war that even an 8-year old felt he might be drafted into, inspired a generation of youngsters to know that that knowledge, determination, teamwork, optimism and most of all BIG DREAMS can literally take you to the moon.

    As I raise two little ones now, I wonder what will inspire them. I hope I will, but even more for their sake — and ours, I hope WE ALL WILL.

  78. TJ

    I grew up a little earlier, and I’ll join your applause for the right kind of parents. While we lived a long way from the city (I could see the Andromeda galaxy without lenses!), I chose astronomy as an interest. My parents fed me books and magazines, and supported my high-school hobbies of ham radio and model rocketry.

    Which is why I’m enjoying the hoaxer outings today!

  79. 10. teacherninja Says:

    Awesome, thanks. I don’t remember it, but I was born on July 16th, ‘68 and my parents swear that I took my first steps on July 20th, ‘69.

    One small step for a baby, one giant leap for babykind?


    30. madge Says:

    Great moments in history can easily become dehumanised unless they are related to the lives of real people. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and letting it touch us all.

    On a lighter note this isn’t NSFW:
    65. A question Says:
    July 20th, 2009 at 11:28 am

    @ 57 Apollo Roll Call:

    What happened to Apollo’s 2 to 7?

    Didn’t they have any astronauts – or were they the flights with chimpanzees? Weren’t there a couple of monkey flights?

    No, the earlier Apollo’s were orbital, with tests to make sure the CSM and LEM could dock, undock, etc. (as I recall)
    Reading all the youngsters (I was 16) and ‘neighbors’ (I lived about 40 miles S of the Cape), about Apollo 11, I thought I’d put up my recollections.
    My father was working at KSC, for Bendix (who handled the elevators for the VAB and the mobile pads). For the launch, we watched on TV as the Saturn V lifted off, then ran out to see the trail from it. When the landing occurred, I was watching on the B/W TV in the ‘Florida Room’ (or ‘breezeway’ = a room between the living room/kitchen and the garage) and remember the “Tranquility base” report, and almost jumped and yelled ‘Yay!’. The First Step I was also watching, and really spent a lot of that summer learning more about NASA (though I was already familiar with it because I’d seen Gemini launches, and possibly later Mercury launches).
    Unfortunately, later we moved away and I didn’t get to see the later Apollo launches or the Shuttle. Though I didn’t ‘become a scientist’, I have always gotten good grades in science classes (A on my basic Astronomy in college)

    One more thing: we choose to do this and the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. (emphasis added)
    14 minutes to landing

  80. The Eagle has landed!

    what a memory…..


  81. John

    Wonderful post, Phil.

    It was the day before my 7th birthday. My parents, in their infinite wisdom, allowed me to stay up well past my usual bedtime. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching our old Zenith black and white television, not wanting to move because I might miss something. What an amazing night it was!!

    Thank you, Neil. Thank you, Buzz. Thank you, Michael. Our world is a better place for what you did 40 years ago.

  82. You got to see a Saturn V launch? I’m jealous!

    I saw the launch of STS-26 (the first post-Challenger flight) and can still remember feeling the rumble in my chest from the engines. I understand that that’s nothing compared to a Saturn V launch.

    I’ve seen a Saturn V “up close and personal”, laying on its side, just outside the VAB, during my visit to see STS-26. (And I had my 5 seconds of fame [where’s the other 14:55?], getting in a soundbite on ABC News that night as they asked a bunch of New Yorkers some questions about the upcoming launch.)

    On the other hand, I am old enough (I was 8 at the time) to remember watching the TV propped up on a cabinet so that everyone could see “LIVE FROM THE MOON”.

  83. Keith

    I really hope I get to experience a true world changing triumph in my lifetime like you did. Apollo brought the whole world to a halt (and for positive reasons). Maybe it won’t be too long for the next big step.

  84. What a great story, Phil, thank you for sharing it. I was 10 when I watched the moon walk on black and white TV, and it changed my life. I’ve been into science fiction and science fact as a serious amateur since then.

    As amazing as the technological breakthroughs are, I always find the people stories, the tales told by the individuals involved in these historic moments, to be deeply moving and the most interesting. Your story is no exception.

    Thank you for your website, and your friendship with Adam Savage – I loved the Mythbusters episode that disproved the conspiracy “theory” that we did not really make it to the moon.


  85. Great post, Phil. Absolutely wonderful story. No crossed fingers, I promise.

    My tale is much shorter. I was a few years older in 1969 than you, but I can tell you that a seven year olds memory is still fairly malleable. I can’t be sure which of my memories of the landing are from watching it live and which are from seeing it hundreds of times on TV and the internet. Still, I do have some memories that I know are mine and not a replay. Here’s my blurb as I posted it on our Astronomy Club e-mail list (Hey, Pamela Gay has visited with us, when are you coming… ;-), anyway:

    I don’t remember the launch. I was out of school for the summer, so likely I was home. I have scattered impressions of the few days it took them to get to the moon, reports from the spacecraft en route, and a general sense of excitement. I do remember what happened a few days later, but those memories are dim and overwritten, more or less, by the many, many replays I’ve seen over the years.

    I may have been too young to really appreciate just what was happening. I knew it was the first time men were going to walk on the moon, but I don’t think I really understood just how impressive that accomplishment would be. But the adults around me knew, and that general sense of excitement sticks with me.

    John B. Sandlin

    PS: I’m going to have to start planning now for the Ares launches so I can take my kids…

  86. Forty years ago on this day I was beginning to think about the prospect of having my 50th birthday party at the Lunar Hilton. I mean, why not? It was more than 30 years in the future and by then we were sure to have regular tourist flights. So, so wrong!

    If you are old enough to have watched the moon landing back in 1969, what did you think would be going on 40 years later? Was your guess better than mine? (I know: a low bar.)

  87. Nice story. Really nice.

    Like others in this thread have mentioned, I’m a child of the shuttle era , and it’s great that we have this wealth of thoughtful, inspired stories like this to help us young-ins get a sense of attachment which to us, is just a part of who we are as a civilization.


  88. Nevy C

    That’s a sweet story. Thanks for sharing, Phil.

  89. Craig Temple

    What name did Conrad sign there?

  90. Grisha

    @Craig Temple

    “What name did Conrad sign there?”

    Conrad always signed with his full name, Charles Conrad, Jr, even though he went by “Pete.”

  91. Rift

    I had just turned six (my birthday is July 4th, and I was bummed when I found out much later that was the original planned landing date but had to be scrubbed.)

    I vividly remember 3 things-

    One- My father looking out the window on a nice july summer day and nobody being outside playing and saying how unusual that was. Everyone was inside glued to the TV. Now it is unusual to see kids out playing outside at all, as you said, different times.

    Two-Going over to my Grandmother’s late at night (which was unusual which is why i remember it) and watching that one small step.

    Three- A kindly gentle uncle-type man on TV explaining things named Walter Cronkite. Dang it, I was looking forward to hearing from him today. Sad. He IS the voice of the moon program to me.

    I was always interested in space too. I might be rather alone here, but I think americans and the worlds will do great things in space in the next 40 years.

  92. Sili

    Thank you, Phil.

    I don’t think I have any memories that clear (from any age?).

  93. Gary


    I was at the Apollo 15 launch as well, and your description of the trip brought back memories! I was 7 at the time. I also remember mom making me stay up to watch the moon landing. Dad? He was busy. In Mission Control!

  94. JB of Brisbane

    I had not long turned five, and I recall listening to it live on “the wireless” in my preschool class. I’m sure I watched it on the TV news that night (in monochrome; Australia did not have colour TV until 1975), but at that stage in my life it wasn’t such a big deal. Hey, grownups could do lots of stuff I couldn’t – drive cars, buy stuff, fly to the moon in spaceships…
    It was only years later, when documentaries started appearing on TV and I was old enough to appreciate them, that the sheer magnitude of the achievement became apparent.

    P.S. Nearly a hundred comments and only two trolls. Well done.

  95. Grand Lunar

    While I’m (yet another) child of the shuttle era, Apollo really captures my imagination.

    I get a thrill whenever I visit the Saturn V/Apollo exhibit at KSC.
    I love the simulation of Apollo 8’s launch, with the consoles lighting up and all!

    The massive Saturn rocket truly shows what we once were capable of.

    I can only hope that by some means, be it the Ares, DIRECT, Side Mount, or something else, that we can once again achieve a moon landing.

    BTW, History Channel is showing the news broadcast of the Apollo 11 EVA.
    Great stuff!
    Looks like the remastered footage is being used.

  96. NotEvenThree

    40 years ago tonight, Mom woke me up, took me outside, pointed up at the full moon and said “there are men on the moon RIGHT NOW!!”. I looked but I didn’t see anyone up there. Somehow I thought they would be visible and looking like tiny ants. I was almost three years old.

  97. LindaY

    Watching the CBS broadcast on the History Channel as I type.

    I was thirteen and remember it all vividly. Great piece–I envy your getting to see a Saturn 5 launch!

    What happened to our ambition?

  98. NotEvenThree

    Now I find that the moon wasn’t full, but a half moon. Funny what tricks time will play on one’s memory.

  99. I love the fact that your folks took the time and rented a motorhome so that your family could witness the historical Apollo moon launches. Hurrah for Mom and Dad.

  100. rickP


    You look very familiar to me. Did you work in building 21 at Goddard at some point?

  101. My there a lot of us 40 somethings here today. Lucky enough to see one of mankind’s greatest achievements but the next 40 years turned out to be a disappointment. No home on the moon, no Mars landing and no flying cars. :(

  102. Annie M

    Dear Phil,

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story. Your father sounds like quite a guy. I was only four and a half, but my Mum sat me down infront of the telly anyway. One of those, “you’ve got to remember this, even though you don’t quite get it yet”. I was so impressed I went and cut the long hair off my sweet baby girl doll, so I could call her ‘Neil’.

    Once my parents got over the dismay of this act of vandalism to a (not that cheap) doll, they found the funny side of it…

    My husband and I are really trying to give a love of science/astronomy by exposing them to all we can (including copious space docos and Cosmos DVDs), but mainly through modelling our love of science and astronomy, despite the facts that we are just ‘ordinary Joes’ with no particular degrees or education. Just for the love of it.

    I am so glad that you have that magazine. A fabulous momento of just one of the contributions your Dad made.

  103. Knurl

    That. Is. So Special.

  104. Knurl

    On http://www.WeChooseTheMoon, Armstrong just set foot.

    I’m more speechless now than when I was 12 years old in ’69.

    Must return to Earth.

  105. MAC

    I was 16 and staying at a friend’s house in Lake Worth, Florida because they had a bigger TV than we did. My buddy Dale and I watched the landing, and thought it would be just a few minutes until the astronauts came out. Some five hours later in the early hours of the morning, they finally did, and Dale took pics of the screen as Neil made his “one small step.” Wonder if he still has them somewhere. We were horribly sleep-deprived that night, but didn’t care a bit. We’d been witness to – and actually felt like participants in – what most historians now call mankind’s greatest achievement.

    It was a time when it seemed the whole country was pulling together for the same goal, and there was an almost palpable sense of excitement surrounding the space program and the audacity of actually trying for the Moon. The entire world stopped that day; wherever they were, people in every country with television paused to watch, and even those who weren’t big fans of the U.S. grudgingly acknowledged that historical moment.

    Cut to today, and we’re on a merry-go-round to nowhere in space. Those who weren’t alive then or were too young to remember may not realize how a shared adventure can galvanize people from every culture and background. As cool as the ISS is, it can’t inspire those feelings any more than a crosstown bus can. Buzz says our next big jaunt should be to Mars, and I agree. It will have to be an international effort this time, and it will certainly be more fraught with danger than Apollo.

    But as our country becomes ever more risk-averse, it’s good to keep in mind the words of the late “Amazing” Grace Murray Hopper, who once noted that “ships in port are safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

  106. Susan S

    Wonderful article. I was 10 years old on July 20, 1969, and I remember my whole family being so excited all day, waiting for the landing. My Mom set up the reclining lawn chairs in the kitchen because we could lean back and be comfortable with pillows and blankets while watching the TV in the largest room in the house. I remember them talking excitedly as we watched the Eagle plummeting down towards the surface and the moon getting closer and closer. My four year old sister kept falling asleep even though I kept waking her up to watch. I’ll always remember the feeling of hearing that voice say “the Eagle has landed”. It was the knowledge that you were there, witnessing something momentous that would be part of human history from then on. It seemed like anything was possible.

  107. Julian

    I saw STS 119 — ISS/Discovery pass over to the north of Bakersfield
    like a bright silver star that turned gold as it passed to the east
    and further toward Earth’s shadow a couple months ago.

    It was a jewel…a guiding star.

    But I want desperately to see us go back to the Moon, to prepare
    for the Long Leap to Mars.

    We HAVE to go back….!!!!

    All of this constant drumbeat of fear in society makes me ill :(

  108. Joao

    Thanks for sharing this, Phil. Brought tears to my eyes.

  109. Nigel Depledge

    Phil, thank-you. That was quite touching.

  110. bassmanpete

    Hi Zeno @91. I was 24 at the time of Apollo 11 and I thought that well before the end of the 20th century there’d be a permanently manned base on the moon with regular supply trips and turnover of crew, a powerful telescope and who knows what else. At the time, Patrick Moore (of the BBC’s The Sky At Night programme) said that he couldn’t see there being a base on the Moon for another hundred years. Most people I knew scoffed at that, but it looks like his estimate is going to be much closer than ours :(

    I found it hard to believe that the American public lost interest in Moon landings so soon after Apollo 11 (even Apollo 13 didn’t rate high news coverage until the explosion occurred) and that the full programme of landings was terminated early. The space programme after that was a bit like only being able to see local pub bands after you’d been to a Led Zeppelin concert!

    Congratulations Phil on a very moving post. I too am jealous of your having seen an Apollo launch.

  111. Andy

    I think that was probably the best thing I’ve read in the past week, and I’ve been reading a bunch of Apollo stuff. Excellent story of inspiration!

    I remember ever since I was about my dad’s age at the time (13), I’ve been jealous that he got to watch this stuff on TV, the launch, the ghostly images of Armstrong hopping off the LEM foot and uttering perhaps the most famous quote of the 20th century. I hope in ten years’ time I can share that memory with him. Here’s to returning to the moon!

  112. Flying sardines

    @ 78. mike burkhart :

    … although when Apollo 11 set down it had only a little fuel left. In the movie ‘Destination Moon’ the ship uses too much fuel landing and have to dump everything overbord to lighten the ship for the trip home – I’m glad Armstrong and Aldrin didn’t have to do this! 😉

    (With a few small corrections from the original.)

    Actually they had to throw half their ship away! 😉

    The LEM (Lunar Excursion Module thatspidery landing ship) split in two and the descent stage stayed behind while the ascent stage (which always reminds me of a Koala’s head) rose up to meet the rest of their ship.

    And that’s not counting throwing away their whole ‘Saturn V’ rocket! 😉

    The Apollo rockets were absolutely awe-inspiring superluminous creations but when you think only the Command module capsule got back – and even that got singed and lost much of its heat shield (thankfully not too much!) it was pretty wasteful.

    It would be so cool if spacecraft to the Moon and beyond could be like we usually imagine in SF – more like planes that take off and land intact, then get fueled up and head off to repeat the procedure again .. Maybe one day …

    @ MAC 112 :

    But as our country becomes ever more risk-averse, it’s good to keep in mind the words of the late “Amazing” Grace Murray Hopper, who once noted that “ships in port are safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

    Great quote. Spot on. :-)

    Also not the only people killed in the whole Apollo program died in a test on the ground – while they were in harbour so to speak.

    Safety anywhere is ultimately an illusion anyway. Our society has become far too risk averse, far too PC conscious, far too soft. We need to take some risks because we quite literally don’t get anywhere without doing so. A life where no risks are taken is a life that has failed and isn’t worth living anyway – in my view.

    Make things as safe as reasonably possible – sure. But no safer.

    Some risks are worth taking and the flying to the Moon – or Mars is one worth taking indeed.

    As William Wallace said in ‘Braveheart’ :

    “We all die. Its just a matter of how and why. … & dying in your bed many years from now, you would trade all your days from now to then for one chance, just one chance to come back here and say “you may take our lives but you’ll never take our freedom!”

    Which to my way of thinking includes the freedom to fly and go boldly as well as the freedom to express ourslves and control our destinies.

    Sometimes we really should just say – never mind the risk, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!

  113. Flying sardines

    @ 65. A question :

    What happened to Apollo’s 2 to 7? Didn’t they have any astronauts – or were they the flights with chimpanzees? Weren’t there a couple of monkey flights?

    7 had astronauts – I presume you mean Apollo’s 2 to 6? 😉

    (I read in a recent issue of ‘Patrick Moore’s Sky at Night’ magazine that the Apollo 7 crew of (as noted by ‘Apollo Roll Call’) Wally Schirra, Don Eisele & Walter Cunningham apparently all had bad colds at the time of their flight and were really grumpy throughout. Apparently mission control found them so bad tempered that none of them ever flew for NASA again! )

    Apollo 2-6 were unmanned test flights as already answered by others here but I will add that you may be thinking of the earliest ‘Mercury’ flights – as written about in Tom Wolfes famous -and well worth reading novelisation – “The Right Stuff.”

    Before even Alan Shepherd went up the USA sent a couple of chimpanzees – ‘Ham’ & ‘Enoch’ ‘Enos’ I believe they were named – into space on sub-orbital flights first. Apparently the test pilots skeptical of the ‘Mercury’ programme jibed to those who volunteered for it that “A monkey’s gonna make the first flight!” .. & sure enough it did! 😉

    From Wikipedia’s Mercury program page :


    Ham, a chimpanzee, launched 31 January 1961 on Mercury-Redstone 2 for a suborbital flight.

    Enos, a chimpanzee, launched 29 November 1961 on Mercury-Atlas 5 for a 2-orbit flight.


    The Russians also launched dogs into space not just “Laika” but Strelka and Belka & others too. Some of those dogs were killed when their rockets blew up. :-(

  114. Flying sardines

    @ 64. Todd Peterson :

    “Man has never been on the moon. it is all a hoax.”

    I prob’ly shouldn’t feed you at all troll so I’ll make this short :


    Then re-read it twice more slowly .. wait and allow time for the truth to sink in.

    Maybe watch the “Mythbuster’s” moon hoax conspiracy theory debunking while your waiting.

    Look up all the names of the Apollo astronauts listed by Apollo Roll Call (post 61 here) and think about this : All of these thirty or so astronauts, who were test pilots from navy and airforce and a geologist, all came from a wide range of backgrounds and all have gone on to write and talk and get interviewed and more.

    Are you calling all of them liars? Yes, you are, you troll – and NOT just liars but perfect, flawless liars who never slip up at all. Now do you really expect us to believe that insulting drivel that passes as a urine-weak “Hoax Conspiracy theory” of yours..??? Sheesh! :roll:

    More than that, you expect the hoaxers to have fabricated everything in a maner that the Soviet Union couldn’t detect at the time and to have fabricated all these exotic Moonrocks that have given us heaps of scientific evidence and you ignore all the photos, all the eyewitnesses, all the evidence, all the well y’know *reality* as opposed to lame-butt fever dreams of paranoid nutters like yourself .. Sheesh again. :roll:

    PS. If your a Poe you’re a bad one. NOT. Funny. At. All.

  115. A question

    @ 79 Gary, 82 John Paradox, 122 Flying sardines & anyone else I may have missed – thanks for answering my question. Appreciated. :-)

    I did read ‘The Right Stuff’ many years ago … probably where I remembered the monkey flights from.

  116. johno

    I was 13 at the time. Remember walking out in the back yard, looking up at the moon, and thinking – there are people up there now.

    What left the greatest impression on me was Apollo 8. Was listening to the broadcast of their show while they were orbiting the moon – I never missed an Apollo broadcast – and when they started reading from Genesis, it seemed so… perfect. I’m not particularly religious, certainly wasn’t then, but at the tender age of 12, that moved me. It underlined what great things we were doing then. To read the behind the scenes stories now, I’m even more amazed at the problems they solved.

    Those were exciting times, when we took on great tasks to advance humanity. “We do these things because they are hard”

  117. You are so lucky to be able to remember the first moon landing and to have been present for the launch of Apollo 15. I was four at the time of the first moon landing and unfortunately, I remember absolutely nothing. My parents say they watched it but cannot remember if I did too. It’s really annoying to know I was here and yet have no memory of such an important event. I do have a memory of watching a later Apollo launch, which had to be Apollo 17, since it was after we moved from an apartment to a house in September 1972.

  118. Phil

    Phil, you lucky dog. I sure wish *I* could have seen a Saturn V launch in person.

    I was 12 during Apollo 11. I remember using the Saturn/Apollo model I’d just built to explain the flight sequence to my mom. Normally she doesn’t care much for space, science or technology in general but this time even she was interested. That was gratifying.

    I’m surprised you remember Apollo 11 at all; I don’t remember John Glenn’s flight when I was 5. (I don’t remember the Cuban Missile Crisis either, but my parents probably shielded me from it.) But as soon as I began to understand space flight I became a dyed-in-the-wool fan. I well remember our teacher rolling a TV set into the classroom so we could watch a Gemini launch. Kids are naturally impatient, and I kept wondering how the astronauts could stand all those waits and the scrubbed launches.

    I vividly remember watching the Apollo 11 landing and EVA on the tiny TV set up in the corner of the lodge at Broad Creek Scout Camp in Maryland. I dog-eared our copy of the National Geographic that featured their photography.

    My best friend’s father worked on the Saturn V in Huntsville. He got to go to a later launch but my mom wouldn’t let me join him. Sigh. One of these years I’ll forgive her.


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