Fifty years later, and it still puts a lump in my throat to remember seeing a man step on the moon for the very first time. It was July 20, 1969 when I – not yet 10 years old – sat in awe and watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first announced that “the Eagle has landed” on the moon.
I remember being scared, wondering what took them so long to get out of the capsule. Our black-and-white television was never turned off in our living room that summer afternoon, evening and night. We even got to eat dinner in the living room on snack trays – a big no-no and a relatively rare treat in my childhood home - just so we could watch the images from the moon.
Hours later, Armstrong stepped onto the moon and uttered what has probably become one of the most famous quotes in history: “"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
I remember feeling sorry for Michael Collins, the command module pilot who had to stay aboard Apollo 11 to get his mission mates safely back to earth. He might not have had a glamorous job, but his was certainly most important.
By the way, watching along with my family and me that July 20 day and evening were an estimated 150 million people across the United States and a total of 650 million people worldwide.
As I remember that amazing time, I realize that we saw the impossible become possible. We witnessed history. We were proud, united and full of wonder and hope and amazement at the possibilities that lay before us. If we could reach the moon, then what could stop us from accomplishing anything?
Then-President Nixon called the Apollo 11 mission a pursuit of “mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.”
In a phone call to Armstrong and Aldrin – who, by the way, were still on the Moon! – President Nixon noted that “this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made.”
The president spoke for all of us when he told the heroic astronauts, “For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is.”
Nixon told Armstrong and Aldrin that because of their landing on the moon, “the heavens have become a part of man's world... it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to earth.
“For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth,” he said.
Even as we celebrated, there was still a sense of nervousness because we had to get our astronauts home.
Indeed, they did return home safely to a hero’s welcome, but President Nixon had prepared a speech to deliver to the nation in case the mission ended in disaster, or, as Nixon termed it, in the event that those “who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”
"In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man," Nixon’s thankfully-never-used disaster speech read. “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts."
By the way, Pope (now Saint) Paul VI also sent his greetings to the astronauts: “Honor, greetings, and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon … Bring to her, with your living presence, the voice of the spirit, a hymn to God, our Creator and our Father. We are close to you, with our good wishes and with our prayers. Together with the whole Catholic Church, Pope Paul VI salutes you.”
Fifty years later and we still honor those brave men who brought us to the moon. This is an important milestone that should not go uncelebrated. Why? Perhaps Walter Cronkite, then the most famous newsman in America, said it best when he was reporting on the landing: “The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us.”