By Jim McDade, technology and science commentator
Most of the people who were alive to witness Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface 50 years ago on July 20, 1969, are no longer with us, so it is up to all of us who are old enough to remember that day to describe what it was like to be one of the estimated worldwide television audience of 530 million people who watched Armstrong plant his left boot in the dry and dusty ground of a new world.
It was a very different United States that organized and coordinated an army of 500,000 skilled workers, engineers, and scientists to build Apollo. The Apollo program was the very rare type of government program that achieved its goal on time and on budget. The best of the Greatest Generation combined with the best and brightest of war babies turned one of the oldest dreams of the human race into reality only eight years and a couple of months after President John F. Kennedy declared that the United States was entering the race for the Moon in May of 1961. The spirit of American exceptionalism never burned brighter than it did during a decade that oddly enough, also saw turmoil, political assassinations, and violence in the streets.
For a few days, the Apollo 11 mission generated a very rare wave of enthusiasm that united people across all of the divides that otherwise separated them. I have never witnessed anything like it. Even President Richard Nixon was not immune to the wave of Apollo enthusiasm. He called that eight-day mission, “the greatest week in the history of the world since the creation.” Nixon even arranged an unexpected “long-distance” phone call to Armstrong and his crewmate Buzz Aldrin while they were still walking on the Moon, telling them, “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.”
America has changed so much during the 50 years since 1969, that the 38-year-old, small town-reared Neil Armstrong, of that day, might think this world of 2019 as much more strange and alien than the Moon was for him back then.
Aside from the obvious societal and political changes that transformed America since then, the technological spin-offs of Apollo research gradually transformed the lives and experiences of everyone, from bankers, to writers, to doctors and nurses, patients, carpenters, athletes, soldiers, sailors, to couch potatoes. I won’t bore the reader with the long list of specific examples that back that claim, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will be happy to do that if you do your own web search for “NASA Spinoffs.”
One particular household tech device that has changed a whole lot since 1969 is the television and it is the television that helps explain why almost everyone alive back then recalls at least some details of that Sunday night when we all waited to see and hear Armstrong speak the first words that would establish his legacy for all posterity.
I was one of the thousands of excited young people across America who stayed awake during the entire 34 hours of unprecedented, live network television coverage of the climactic hours of the mission. Very few people had access to more than two, three, or four television channels in pre-satellite/cable TV 1969, so Apollo 11 had a literal monopoly on the three big television networks of that era. Television audience ratings indicated that 45% of the national viewing audience watched the CBS television coverage, while 34% tuned into NBC and 16% to ABC. That comes to a total of 95% of the televisions in the country tuned into the Apollo 11 coverage! (Who knows what the other 5% were doing?)
Finally, as a proud Alabamian, I have to point out that America could not get to the Moon without going through Alabama. It was Huntsville’s Marshall Spaceflight Center that gave NASA the world’s most powerful rockets that took us to the Moon, but many other Alabama-based companies made heavy contributions to that gargantuan effort. A lot of Birmingham steel was in those titanic Apollo structures at Kennedy Space Center and Montgomery’s Blount Brothers Construction Company built the largest structures that comprised the massive Apollo Launch Complex 39 where Apollo began its journey to the Moon. The list of Alabama Apollo contractors is too long to list here, but there are still a lot of retired Apollo workers living in communities all over this state.