You know the big stories about the landing of Apollo 11, but here’s a more personal look at standout memories from some who covered that story.
If you are a journalist for any length to time, you build up a collection of memorabilia – press passes to national political party conventions, permanent media passes, briefing books, transcripts, coffee mugs and on and on and on.
Some are more important than others.
One of the most significant items in my collection is a small colored lapel button handed out in the press room at the Manned Spacecraft Center near Houston almost immediately after Astronaut Buzz Aldrin called “Contact light,” notification that one of the about 5-foot long probes on three of the four footpads on the lunar lander had touched the surface of the moon. *
You really had to be there to understand the electricity in the press room. Reporters from all over the world cheered when Neil Armstrong announced a short time later: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Astronaut Charlie Duke – the CAPCOM (read capsule communicator; NASA used astronauts to talk to astronauts) – spoke for everyone involved when he responded, “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
Duke would go on to be the lunar module pilot for Apollo 16 in 1972 and become the 10th and the youngest person to walk on the moon at age 36.
By now, with all the newspaper stories, movies and television specials on the Apollo 11 mission, there is little left to say.
So I consulted with fellow UPI Space Writer Ed DeLong. DeLong lives in Australia now. We haven’t seen each other for decades but we stay in touch.
He preceded me as editor of the student newspaper at Baylor University and later went on to be head of the wire service’s Spaceflight Bureau at NASA Houston. Its call sign on the internal communication circuit was LX, which stood for “Lunar Exploration.”
He was my best friend at Baylor and, I suspect, the reason I was included on the spaceflight coverage team, beginning with Apollo 7.
We exchanged emails about the 50th anniversary.
“I figured most everybody else would be going on about memories of grand adventure and other splendidly large concepts, so I would keep things down at the Joe Six-Pack human level,” DeLong said.
“We all worried and often joked about what the space program had given us. Was it terrible tasting powdered orange drink? Was it Velcro? Just what was it?” DeLong said.
“Well, it turns out, Apollo gave us the digital age. The tiny Apollo Guidance Computer in the Apollo command module – about as powerful as the home computers of the late 1970s such as the TRS-80 – was at the time the fastest, most nimble, most portable computer in the world. It was also one of the first computers to use integrated circuits,” he said.
And he shared a couple of personal stories.
As a full-time journalist covering the space program, he had private interviews with the astronauts selected to fly Apollo missions.
“I had finished my formal interview with Michael Collins when, on a playful whim, I asked if he’d like to bet whether America would land men on the moon in 1969 [the deadline set by President Kennedy]. He said he’d bet that an Apollo flight would achieve the 1969 goal,” DeLong said.
That was months before the selection of Apollo 11 as the first landing flight. Fast forward to the return from the moon.
Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong were sealed in an airtight silver trailer in Houston to keep lunar material separate from Earth contamination.
“Government dignitaries and news media talked with the astronauts through a window in one end of the trailer. After a while a NASA representative asked me to come around to a similar window at the back end of the trailer,” DeLong said. “There, virtually filling the window, was a hand-written sign: ‘I win. Make it Coors.’ ”
My favorite personal story is that my wife, Harriet, joined me in Houston for the actual flight. I had already been there for a couple of weeks on detached duty from my job as Denver bureau manager for UPI.
We pressed her into service running copy and transcripts back and forth between the press center and the nearby UPI office.
My mother-in-law was proud of that and told all her friends that Harriet was a call girl for UPI.
“Copy girl, Mother,” Harriet said. “Copy girl.”
* Why, you may ask, isn’t there an image? Because its stored in such a safe place that I can’t find it.
Paul K. Harral is Associate Editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. Among previous jobs, he spent 10 years with UPI in Dallas, Denver and Chicago, where he was executive editor of the UPI Broadcast Department.