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Ohio Life

Essay: Apollo 11 at 50

On the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps, one writer recalls the lead-up to that summer night that captured the imagination of people around the globe. 

By the time Neil Armstrong proclaimed the Apollo 11 mission to be “… one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” lunar lore was deeply ingrained in our pop culture. We tuned into alien-centric episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” followed the exploits of Capt. James Kirk and his crew of the USS Enterprise on “Star Trek” and rooted for the Robinson family as they fought for survival while “Lost in Space.”

Our teachers fueled our fascination by herding us into the gym to watch the real-life launches of Apollo 11’s predecessors. We cheered for Ohioan John Glenn when, in February 1962, he became the first American to orbit the Earth. Five years later, we sat at our desks and observed a moment of silence for astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who died after a fire broke out during a simulation exercise at Kennedy Space Center.

By spring 1969, excitement for the upcoming moon landing had reached fever pitch, and advertisers wanted in on the zeal. One of the more memorable sales ploys involved Tang. Although General Foods Corp. had developed the powder that turned into an orange drink when mixed with water in 1957, sales didn’t skyrocket until commercials began promoting the fact that NASA had been sending it along on manned missions.

Since there was no such thing as streaming in 1969, you had to be in front of a TV set if you wanted to witness the moon landing. An estimated 650 million people around the globe were watching on July 20, 1969, as Ohioan Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on another world.

In Independence, Ohio, I was one of them. My parents made sure I was awake in front of our 22-inch, black-and-white Zenith to witness in real time what was thought to be unimaginable. To mark the occasion, the 12-year-old me snapped a photo of the “Live From Moon” feed with my Kodak Instamatic 124 camera.

In a decade riddled with tragedies that included the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a war that claimed the lives of people we knew, this astounding achievement was balm for our battered souls.

In what seems like a heartbeat, 50 years have passed. But those of us who experienced that night remember — and look skyward to ponder where the next first footstep will take us. 

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