Repost: What Apollo means to me

By Phil Plait | July 20, 2012 9:56 am

[I had some fun, light stuff to post today, but after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado – not 60 kilometers away from where I sit – I think I’ll hold off posting them for now.

Instead, let me turn your mind to something bigger than all of us, something more positive. Today marks two milestones in space exploration history: the Viking 1 probe landing on Mars in 1976, and the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969. The former was the first time we had successfully landed a probe on the Red Planet, and the latter was the first time humans ever set foot on another world. For a lot of my readers, Apollo 11 was ancient history, but to me, it’s personal. This is that story. I posted this originally three years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, but it all is still appropriate. And remember: when we reach, we are capable of great things.]

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Science
MORE ABOUT: Apollo 11, Pete Conrad

Comments (40)

  1. Mark

    Check your arithmetic on the five hours.

  2. Keith Bowden

    Thanks, Dr, Plait. I needed this. I used to work for Century (before the Cinemark purchase) and spent most of my life in the industry. I used to know the managers at the Aurora location, and this is every manager’s nightmare. My heart goes out to the victims and their families, and I’ve posted this on my Facebook, for my friends, family and former co-workers who needed to see a better side of humanity today.

  3. TerryS.

    I was 10 1/2 when it happened, watching it live as my parents allowed me to stay up well after my standard bedtime (it was almost 11:00 pm Toronto time when Armstrong stepped down). The one thing that is still so clear in my mind is that the picture was upside down for the first few seconds as Armstrong stood on the ladder. I can’t believe it’s been forty three years.

  4. gradstudent

    I really appreciate the positive post on a morning when others are focusing on the tragedy. Thanks.

  5. The Moon landings happens between the ages of four and seven for me. I remember looking up at the moon and knowing there were people walking around up there. At four it was magic, by seven it was science. I sometimes show my kids the ISS going by, and they are amazed there are people up there, but I don’t think it has quite the same magic.

  6. thetentman

    I was 11. We were on vacation in Cape Cod. We watched on an old BW TV. I will remember that day forever.

  7. mike burkhart

    Frist about the shooting terable this is another example of a problem with this country: the attiude that guns solve problems ,I know I used to have that attiude myslef I don’t anymore. and shoting inocent people has never solved anyones problem. About the Apollo Moon landing I was only a year old but I think it was a very grate achievement for the frist time humans walked on another world in this we learned a lot about the Moon. I’m disapoited we never went back I think we should.The Viking 1 landing I rember the pictures showing a red landscape covered with rocks an a pink sky and finding no life there.I would point out the Viking orbiters photos of the Cydonia region caused a contaversy that raged for almost two decades I refer to the face and pyramids. In the 90s the Mars Global Surveyor finely solved the matter . I had thought we would have had humans on Mars by now ,I’m still hopeing someday we will. My thoughts and prayers are with the victams of the shooting.

  8. JammerML

    I was, sadly, not yet born. Every time I witness footage, I tear up.

  9. Patricia

    Thanks for this!

    I was 11 and what I most remember is walking out onto the beach from the hotel we were staying in and looking up at MY moon. The hotel had set up several televisions in the lobby so the guests could watch the landing. It was really something to have seen the astronauts step down onto the surface of the moon and then walk out and look up knowing that people from Earth were there. I’ll have to check, I’m thinking that since we were in the Galveston/North Padre Beach area, we may have gone to Johnson Space Center on that trip as well.

  10. I was 8. We had dropped my older brother off at camp earlier that day, and listened to the landing on the car radio on the drive back. I remember staying up past my bedtime to watch a small black-and-white TV propped up on top of a cabinet so that everyone in the room could see it.

    And I remember reading this same post 3 years ago. :-)

  11. Russell

    Our whole family (5 of us) was huddled around a little portable tv not more than 8″. I got to take the day off from summer school to stay home and watch the landing and first steps. We stayed tuned in all day long. It was quite a day.

    “weeeeeeeee……Do it again” !

    Thanks Phil

  12. The Mutt

    My grandmother was born 7-20-1898. I remember asking her if she was blown away by the moon landing. She told me of reading the news about Kitty Hawk and the first time she saw an airplane.

  13. Mark

    At the age of 12 I received by first telescope ( 3″ reflector) on Christmas Eve, the night Apollo 8 went into orbit around the Moon. Seven month later I would sit infront of our TV in New Jersey and watch Walter Conkite all day, from well before the Moon landing at 4pm to after midnight when Armstrong and Aldrin left the lunar surface. I would go on to a 30+ year career as an Astronomy / Chemistry teacher. The inspiration for my life’s work came from thoses missions, I strongly believe great governments can inspire people to do great things. The Apollo Moon program is an example.

  14. I believe I am the oldest of the posters so far; I was 22 that day. I had almost forgotten how exciting those times were.

    For those who want to relive those days as realistically as possible, I strongly recommend the book “A Man On the Moon” by Andrew Chaikin. I am currently re-reading the book for the fourth time, and I’m reading about Apollo 16 at present. It’s a wonderful book and an easy read too.

    For a movie, I recommend “The Dish” starring Sam Neil. It’s about the radio telescope in Australia which broadcast the pictures from the Eagle’s landing around the world, and the people who manned the telescope.

  15. Ken Coenen

    I was 16 that day. I remember it well as I took time off from being a typical teen to watch history. The entire experience is still fresh n my mind. Phil, you are right…when we reach we ARE capable of great things. Where has that spirit gone?

  16. Zathras

    Anybody notice that if you put a beard on that picture of Pete Conrad, he would be a dead ringer for our favorite Bad Astronomer? Bald pate and all…….
    Even the sense of humor is similar……Methinks I smell a conspiracy here…..;-)

  17. Joe Alvord

    I was traveling through the West with my family. On July 20 we were camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where there were no TVs or TV reception for a hundred miles. I remember sitting with about 30 others with the one guy with a radio listining to Armstrong go out onto the lunar surface. It is impossible to describe my feelings, looking up at the moon and hearing the astronauts as they walked about up there.
    My grandmother traveled to the Grand Canyon by stagecoach as a girl. It was the only way to get there then. She also lived to see Armstrong walk on the moon. I hope I last long enough to see it again.
    Thanks, Phil.

  18. TheVirginian

    I was not quite 17, living in Virginia. My parents let me sit up late to watch. I remember it was after midnight – my (possibly flawed) memory says it was about 2 a.m. when they stepped on the moon; I need to look up the exact details some time. We had a black-and-white TV, but I think the transmission was B&W, so it didn’t matter. I remember Armstrong talking when he stepped on the surface. I was a huge science and science fiction fan then (I saw Star Trek from the beginning) so it was a powerful moment for me.

  19. Off topic, but still fun.
    You can experience a near-death experience tomorrow!
    w w w dot

    Live feed here:
    h t t p: //

  20. Phil, as you know, I sat on that sofa, too. I remember it all pretty well, since I was 14. Patricia, I too, went outside and stared at the moon. It was probably the greatest moment of my life up until then.

    I hadn’t thought about the smell of that bathroom from the time we returned that Winnebago until I read your words about five minutes ago. That sweet, yet ugly, smell returned to my brain at that moment. Gee, thanks!

    This was a great post then and it still is. Thanks for bringing (most of) it back!

  21. F_T_K

    It was the day before my 7th birthday. My Mom, in her infinite wisdom, knew how interested I was in the space program and she said “tonight, you can stay up as late as you want.”

    I was glued to our black & white zenith television, until way past my usual bedtime. What a great memory.

    Thanks, Mom. You’ve always known how to inspire us kids.

  22. Been There Too

    Thanks, Phil. I was 9 when Apollo 11 started its epic journey. I grew up not far from where Neil grew up, and I was an avid space junkie. Still am…after a career in the Air Force that included time launching satellites, I fell in love with Cocoa Beach and to this day (even after my retirement from the service), we still go there nearly every year. I was fortunate enough, at one point, to have been granted a security pass and travelled to each and every launch pad Canaveral has. I cried when I read the plaque where Apollo 1 tragically burned, but I cheered when I found the pad from which the Mercury astronauts bravely first set foot into space. So much history. So much still to learn. And speaking for myself, I’ve tried to instill some of the wonder and joy I felt into my children, who enjoy our annual trek to Kennedy, to see the sights we’ve seen dozens of times just one more time.

    I don’t understand this tragedy, and I don’t believe I ever will. But I’ll hug my children again this morning and celebrate their lives. May God bless the families of the souls in Aurora. Godspeed. We will miss you.

  23. Giora Dothan

    Same as you, I clearly remmber myself sitting at my future wife’s sister’s house in Houston, just about 2 weeks in the U.S. getting ready for my nation.
    after all these years, back in my home country, I am still the biggest fan the U.S. have.
    What a great country.

  24. mike burkhart

    One last thing I said we need to go back to the Moon. Not just that we need to stay. We have an International Space station,how about an International Moon base?

  25. Ray

    The roar of the main engines used to shake the house and threaten the china. The power could ripple the water in the backyard canal, and it would reverberate in the chest. The sound was magnificent and felt tangible, like you could touch it. Night launches were like watching the Sun leave earth. As engines cleared the roof lines of the homes behind us, it would grow long shadows of the trees and homes that grew shorter as the graceful monster fought for altitude, leaning into it’s trajectory. Tipsy space program wives whose husbands manipulated controls and monitored data streams at the Cape during launch would sometimes cheer at the beginning. We teenyboppers did not. I didn’t anyway. (I was afraid it was bad luck for the men riding in that tiny cone on top. Better to cheer at Splashdown.) Dad was there in Launch Control, an electrical engineer for North American Rockwell, stationed in over watch of a group of men working at their consoles near Walter Cronkite’s glass booth. Sometimes he would come home later, happy and exhausted. Sometimes he stayed until splashdown, like during Apollo 13. I am very proud of him and his generation. I don’t remember if Mom cheered as the gleaming tower, muscular and determined, continued its irresistible, roaring ascent and would not be denied. At about two and half minutes and after 5 million gallons of fuel had burned through the nozzles, there was brief pause, then Bam! The empty Stage One would fall away as S2 ignited and assumed the battle for altitude. Later, when the roar gradually dissipated and the vehicle became a bright star moving quickly away, the world would turn quiet. Something had changed. People seemed stunned, lost in thought, some like they had been holding their breath the whole time. After a bit they would began talking again. Quietly, hesitant at first . Things were different now. Mankind, was leaving the earth for another world. Americans! I often ponder what it was like for those incredible men who earned the right to ride that magnificent power into orbit, riding that first leg of their long and perilous journey into history.

  26. Grand Lunar

    Thank you for reposting this, Phil.

    For me, Apollo is a mixed bag.

    It does mark a great era in human exploration, when the US showed the rest of the world what it could do.
    It’s the voyage that we try to live up to with the current plan that has yet to find focus.

    On the other hand, there’s the consideration of why we went.
    It was done not in the spirit of exploration, but as a means to achieve victory over our rivals.
    Because of such a spirit, it was easy to stop going and stop dreaming when that victory was achieved.

    We can only hope that if and when we begin human spaceflight outside of LEO that we are in it for the long run. I for one think it can do more for the nation than most realize.

  27. Paul

    I had just transferred to the University of Florida and as the launch date for Apollo 11 approached, it suddenly dawned on me how stupid it would be for me to be a few hours drive from the Cape and not see the launch. So, the afternoon before the launch, I threw a change of clothes in the back seat and drove down and joined the million+ people who had parked wherever they could with a sight line to the launching pad. I can see and feel the launch as if it just happened – standing on top of my red and white ’63 Fairlane (along with some random kids who asked me if it was okay if they climbed up, too) and seeing the flash of the firing of the engines and then seconds later hearing the delayed sound and feeling the earthshaking vibration from the launch. That two-tone Fairlane was a solid car, but boy did it rock and roll. The sight, sound, and feel of the launch was so much more overwhelming than I imagined it could be.

  28. Agustín

    Phil, I hadn’t read this post before, and honestly I can say it really helps to bring out deep feelings, at least to those of us who are in love with Maths, Astronomy,Science in general and Engineering.
    By the way, you were a luckyguy… :-)))

  29. Nigel Depledge

    I remember this post from last time, Phil.

    What surprises me is that there are no posts from HBs. Have we finally eradicated that particular disease?

  30. Rorgg

    Thanks for this. I’d always remembered my parents talking about how there were men on the moon when I was born and watching the live broadcast just before and after the birth, and this reminded me of that… yep, it was the apollo 15 mission’s second EVA, August 1, 1971.

    Kinda gave me a warm fuzzy.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Just to join in . . . yes, men have walked on the moon in my lifetime, but I was too young at the time to remember it.

  32. Nigel Depledge

    @ Rorgg (32) –

    Wait, what?

    There were men on the moon watching a live broadcast of your birth?? Is that what you’re saying?

  33. Stu Harris

    Too bad that the so-called “science adviser” for the popular overnight radio show “Coast to Coast AM” — the untrained and unemployed Richard Hoagland — could not rise to the occasion of the anniversary in similar reminiscence. Instead he presented a fraudulent image of what he called a “ziggurat” on the far side on the Moon. This image was not even his discovery, although he presented it as though it was. It’s been around the “anomalist” web sites for years, and it has been shown definitively to be concocted. What will it take for the producers of that radio show to realize that he’s bringing them into disrepute?

  34. David E. Francis

    I was 13 when Apollo 11 went to the moon. I remember watching Armstrong oh, so slowly, come down the LEM’s ladder and then to step firmly upon the surface of the Moon. I remember thinking that the future held incredible and wonderful opportunities for both myself and my generation. It has been both frustrating and depressing to have watched those opportunities through the years since become more and more just a shadow; without any real substance. I can not help but wonder what our world would be like today if we had stayed the course and had followed the dreams that lead to space stations, a permanent moonbase, and possibly to a manned mission to Mars in 1980’s. I, myself, imagine a more vibrant, more positive world, more kinder where almost anyone can work and live out their life’s dreams. Where did we, the U.S. and the world, go wrong?

    The following analogy seems to sum it up: Christopher Columbus, (the Apollo program), sailed to the New World, (went to the Moon), and found a new and different land. When he returned, the King and Queen, (the U.S. and the world), said there would be no more trips would be made—too much to do at home, (turned their backs on perhaps Man’s greatest achievement).

  35. Alex Gorlin

    I cannot share the same kind of reminiscences not only because I wasn’t born yet, but also because I’m from the other side of the planet. I do remember though the enthusiasm with which my dad, not particularly in the space industry, used to talk about the Apollo program and its challenging engineering complexity. He passed away some years ago, but l have his old cardboard file full of meticulously cut out and sorted Soviet newspaper articles about the events. Strangely enough, the usually dry and sarcastic phrasing as well as the whole attitude towards the Cold War foe go away in these messages, as if ceasing political fire for a moment.

    BTW, do you know Steve Jurvetson scanned and made available the LEM Construction Log (

  36. Matt B.

    My brother Tim was exactly 3 when Apollo 11 landed. He’s had that event to mark his birthday ever since. Now he’ll have another anniversary to coincide with his birthday for the rest of his life, tipping the scale of joy in the other direction. Of course, to him, in California, it’s not a local tragedy, but the rest of my family (including me) lives within 30 miles of the theater. I understand that one of the victims was also celebrating a birthday.

    One of my coworkers knows a couple of people that left the theater right before the shooting. And to think I grew up in the neighborhood of Columbine High School too. (We moved away long before I went to high school, and I graduated from high school 6 years before that shooting anyway, but it’s a little spooky.)

  37. Wayne Harrison

    Thanks for posting this. I was 20 and covered Apollo 11 from the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my career. (I’m still at it). I look up at the moon and wonder how long it will be before we ever go back. In school, our textbooks forecast that we would have lunar bases by now. Both 2001 and 2010 have already passed us by, with none of the advancement or scientific technology envisioned in Arthur C. Clark’s novels. I look up at the moon and feel sad that wars distracted us from our goal. In 1969, it was easy to believe we would be on Mars by 2001.

    I also live not far from Columbine and Aurora and feel the sense of loss. Because I was covering the Aurora shootings I missed pausing to reflect on the 40th anniversary of one of mankind’s greatest achievements .


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