Remembering the Apollo 11 Launch

I thought many things that hot summer morning of 40 years ago, standing at the then–Cape Kennedy press site, staring at the Apollo Saturn vehicle some 3 miles distant, listening to the quasi-Gregorian countdown chant of "minus 10 seconds, 9, 8…" until, finally, the powerful first-stage rocket engines had built up enough thrust to pop open the big rocket's hold-down clamps and it began rising slowly, ponderously, into the blue sky. (Story continued below...)

Snugged into the couches of their Apollo spacecraft like gems in a Fabergé egg were three Americans—Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins. They were bound for the Earth's moon, where Armstrong and Aldrin would scuff that ancient, dusty surface for the very first time.

My heart raced. Torn between being a spectator at a most historic event and a professional journalist who would soon have to convey the wonder of all this to readers, I tried to commit to memory every aspect of the moment: the thunderous roar, overlaid by the sharp, distinctive crackling of the rocket engines and the tremors they set off in the ground; the billowing white exhaust; the lacquered blue sky; the cheers and gasps of the reporters and broadcasters all around me; the bright red countdown clock now counting up as the huge space vehicle rose oh so slowly before gathering speed and then climbing higher and higher before disappearing downrange little by little, like the Cheshire cat's grin.

Forty years can weather a memory like soft sandstone, but I still recall all that clearly. I was certain that people everywhere—from Spitzbergen to Punta Arenas, from Atlanta to Adelaide—were similarly excited. After all, there were several thousand print, radio, and TV journalists there that day, reporting the event as it was happening second by second, minutia by minutia, in hundreds of languages and fonts, to the farthest corners of the planet.

Impossible, I thought, for anyone outside the upper Amazon Basin or the farthest Gobi dunes to be unaware of what was taking place at that very moment on that Florida spit; impossible for anyone to be unmoved by the courage of these three men; impossible not to be awed by the skills and ingenuity of the tens of thousands of engineers and technicians who built that rocket and that spaceship; impossible not to admire America's technological prowess.

And while both rocket and spaceship bore "USA" and "United States" logos on their sides, I thought the then three and a half billion people of the world would readily see this was not a proprietary American effort but, rather, an American gift to all humanity. We were about to set foot on another body in the solar system archipelago, a body that had always seemed both tantalizingly near and yet forever beyond reach. And we were doing it, as the plaque on the lunar landing craft stated, "in peace for all mankind."

When people everywhere saw that humans were landing on luna nova and not claiming it for some king or empire, surely, I thought, they would also see that the territorial lines they had drawn on this planet from time immemorial, boundaries that had almost always led to wars and bloodshed, surely they would think anew about their relationship to Earth—and themselves. Well ... such were the heartfelt, if perhaps naive, thoughts of the then–30 something science editor of Newsweek.

There were critics, back in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy committed the U.S. to "achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth," who ridiculed the idea as a stunt, a day-late/dollar-short project to negate the Soviets' earlier triumphs of Sputnik, Laika the space dog, and astronaut Yuri Gagarin (among others). And, of course, it was also said that Kennedy was papering over the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April of that same year. I didn't think that then; I don't think that today. Kennedy sought a competitive arena with the Soviets where America's leadership and skills could be demonstrated to the world—without resort to warfare.

And make no mistake about the Soviets' ambitions then: they had an aggressive manned lunar program that closely paralleled the Apollo project for several years, but they kept it as hidden as only they could, for as long as they could. (It collapsed, according to some historians, because of internal rivalries and poor management.)

Indeed, the Apollo project had its own serious problems, starting with the initial concepts of what a manned trip to the moon should look like. No engineer he, Kennedy at first saw Apollo as Jules Verne might have: a monstrously huge, single rocket that would lug a manned capsule and its return ticket – a smaller, but still sizeable, fully-fueled rocket—directly onto the lunar surface and somehow keep it all upright. It was an unrealistic, unachievable concept.

The president also was inclined, at first, to limit the Apollo program to just one flight. Again, his advisers pointed out the dangers of placing all the U.S. eggs in one carton. Even if it succeeded, they argued, a one-off mission would have been prohibitively expensive; better to amortize that huge cost over a series of flights. Moreover, a single mission that ended in failure would have made Humpty-Dumpty the symbol of U.S. space exploration for all time.

Apollo 11 set sail for the moon on July 16, 1969, a Wednesday—good timing for a newsweekly that normally closed late over the weekend and was on newsstands Monday. So while Apollo 11's launch fit this process nicely, its intended landing—on Sunday, July 20—did not. But the late Osborn "Oz" Elliott, then Newsweek's editor, decided to delay the press run until we knew if Armstrong and Aldrin had landed safely on the moon. "How often is something like this going to happen?" I recall him saying.

During the three-day passage to the moon, a Newsweek team of reporters settled into the press center at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and began filing reams of copy to 444 Madison Avenue in New York, then the magazine's headquarters. I had returned to New York on the 16th and braced myself for what I knew was going to be the most pressured of high-pressure deadlines.

Oz Elliott had arranged for a black-and-white TV set to be installed in my small office so that I could follow the landing as it actually happened. Two additional phone lines were run in. By late Saturday, I'd written perhaps half of the cover story—the bottom half covering Wednesday's countdown and launch, the back story of the astronauts and the Apollo program and the anxious expectations of people everywhere. On Sunday afternoon, East Coast time, I watched as Armstrong and Aldrin wiggled through the tunnel of their command module into the cabin of the landing craft, separated from Collins in the former, and began their descent toward the lunar plain called the Sea of Tranquility.

Adding to the top of the story, I described the almost unbearably suspenseful landing as Armstrong zigged and zagged just a few hundred feet above that plain, looking for a relatively smooth surface, before finally dropping his lunar outrigger down and shutting off its rocket engine—with about 20 seconds of fuel remaining. The time was 4:18 p.m., EDT. This was no smash-and-grab job. Prudence dictated the two astronauts check and double-check their craft for the return flight to Collins and the mothership orbiting above—the space agency was fully prepared to bring them off the surface without ever setting boots on the regolith, in the event of an ominous development—and get a little rest.

Thus it was almost 11 p.m. before Armstrong opened the small hatch of the lunar lander and backed down its ladder, a ghostly figure seen in low-def by a small TV camera attached to the side of the spacecraft. Aldrin followed some 20 minutes later and the two men ran through their paces: planting an American flag (with a wire to hold it erect in the airless environment), setting out scientific instruments and gathering up almost 50 pounds of lunar rocks and pulverized moon matter.

Once they were back inside their lander, I finished the topmost paragraphs. Ed Diamond, my senior editor, didn't like my lede: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Diamond wanted something more poetic, as he put it, more dramatic, grander. "Wait a minute," I responded. "This is the most significant utterance any human has made up until now. A hundred years from now, do you think historians will take more note of what Armstrong actually said or what Newsweek wrote about the event?" He grumbled but yielded.

Eventually, some years after the sixth and final lunar landing mission, I began feeling disappointed in the Apollo program. So much effort had gone into the rockets, the manned motherships and lunar landers, the science packages and the samples so carefully gathered and brought back to Earth—and there was no follow-up with, say, a lunar astronomical observatory on its far side. Or a research station akin to the one at Earth's South Pole. Or a proving ground for planetary rovers or crater-jumpers.

It just ended, never mind with a "bang," but not even with so much as a whimper. Veni, vidi, ingredi absentis—we came, we saw, we walked away.