I know where I was on July 20, 1969, when it happened. In front of the TV set, waiting for what was, for my money, the greatest television show of all time: The race to the moon. We gathered in front of my grandparents’ television because it was the rare color set, at least on the Fort Worth’s Near SouthSide. At 13, I was the prime demographic for this event. It all unfolded like a great episodic TV show without an annoying love story or sappy music. I don’t think the rest of my family was quite as intrigued. They had to get up in the morning and go to work. For many in my generation this moment was like the humans encountering the obelisk in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Something happened.
Now, 45 years later, few recall that something happened. Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., who walked on the moon that day with Neil Armstrong, wants to change that. He wants people to share their stories of the moon landing and, he hopes, inspire another generation to head into space. Or maybe just inspire another generation. NASA has restored those grainy images provided by a single small video camera aboard the lunar module. The camera used a non-standard scan format that commercial television could not broadcast, so NASA jumped through hoops to adapt the images. The tracking stations converted the signals and transmitted them using microwave links, Intelsat communications satellites, and AT&T analog landlines to Mission Control in Houston. By the time the images showed up through the miracle of rabbit ear antennas, they were just short of useless. I didn’t care. There was a man on the moon! The images look better now than they did on my grandparents’ flickering Zenith. I wasn’t alone watching the broadcast. The Armstrong and Aldrin moonwalk broadcast had a combined 93 share in the days of three networks. I’m not sure what the other 7 percent were watching. Today, CNN and the news networks would cover it and the rest of us would be watching ESPN Classic’s rebroadcast of the 1969 Super Bowl.
CBS’ Walter Cronkite, a NASA groupie of the first order, ruled the night with a 45 share. “Man is finally standing on the surface of the moon. My golly!” he gushed. His colleague, Eric Sevareid, waxed philosophical and tried to sound wise: “Of course, the moon now is something different for the whole human race. There’s a price for everything. There isn’t any gain without some loss.” They used to pay people to do that.
CBS also had someone else to give sci-fi writers a voice in the matter, since they started this whole thing. So Ray Bradbury remarked that with the moon landing mankind had begun “to discover we are really three billion lonely people on a small world.” Way to bring the room down, Ray.
I didn’t recall that part of it. I just remember Cronkite’s boyish enthusiasm that matched mine. In all, 12 men explored the moon in six landings through 1972. Fort Worth got a bit of notoriety when R.L. Paschal graduate Alan Bean became the fourth person to walk on the moon, but it wasn’t long before moon landings and space exploration became a joke. How does a national goal to beat the evil, horned Russians “jump the shark?” It was over and we moved on to another dream. Star Wars came out in 1977; “moonwalk” meant a Michael Jackson dance move. These dreamers began programming software on computers. Software and computers, by the way, were an outgrowth of the space program. How quickly they forget. But those of us who sat in our middle-class homes as these same ancient television tubes that brought us Captain Kangaroo delivered a message from space knew we had shared a rare moment where something happened.