My Memories of Watching Man’s First Steps on the Moon

I remember it was very late at night, when Mom, Dad, my sister Cristina, and I sat in front of the TV in the family apartment in Buenos Aires on Arenales Street to watch humanity make history.   It was July 20, 1969.  I was ten years old, and within minutes we were going to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon.

Footprint

Credit: NASA

The transmission of the event itself was a miracle of modern technology; I am not referring only to the transmission from the moon but also to the transmission from the United States. Today it is routine, but in those days the phrase “Via Satellite” flashing on the screen would make your heart beat a little faster as the world both shrank and opened up at the same time.  Major world events were broadcast live with this technology brought by the new space age. The problem is that the video link did not always work and more than once you were left stranded, not being able to participate in the big global event. That night the transmission would be one of the many variables in the game but, fortunately, it cooperated to give us one of the most unforgettable moments in our lives.

The contrasts in that room with my family were typical of what we lived in the middle of that dizzying 20th century. My father, born in 1911, followed the 1923 Dempsey vs. Firpo fight in New York, via a crystal radio (a very primitive radio that used a crystal and a filament http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_radio) that he had built with his brother; it was the only radio at the time in Lima, province of Buenos Aires!  Long-distance phone calls had to be ordered in advance with the operator calling several hours later to establish the communication. It was not long ago that my mother cooked in a kerosene oven at the farm that the family owned in Rio Negro. But the future was coming at us, and to young people around the world, it would open a world of possibilities, aspirations, and hopes.  

The black and white images (if they were in color, it would not have mattered, because color television would not come to Argentina until the 1978 World Cup) on TV were not very sharp, something not surprising given their origin.  But they were good enough for us to distinguish the ladder that a member of our species was about to use to disembark in a new world. I remember asking myself how they had managed to use a television camera with that perspective. I learned later that the camera was mounted outside the Lunar Module in a compartment that Neil Armstrong opened from the porch of the Lunar Module by pulling a handle (http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/alsj/a11/ap11-S69-31575.jpg and http://www.myspacemuseum.com/mesa.htm).  Thankfully, to NASA it was very clear that this was a moment that deserved to be documented for posterity in the best possible way (the “Apollo nerds” like me can read more details about the TV cameras used in: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/ApolloTV-Acrobat7.pdf).

With our noses glued to the TV and our hearts in our mouths, we could finally discern the silhouette of Neil coming down the ladder. The truth is that I do not remember the details of the audio that accompanied the images. If it was the communication between Neil and Houston Control, I’m sure I did not understand anything because my brain was still fighting with the English language, which would take me years to conquer.

What I do remember, however, was my terror when I clearly noticed Neil taking a huge jump from the last step of the ladder to the lunar soil (actually onto the circular pad at the end of the Lunar Module’s leg). My instinctive terror was based on the uncertainty of whether Neil would be able to climb back up the ladder again with such a high first step while wearing such a cumbersome spacesuit. Who designed this?  How ridiculous would it be if they failed on a detail so simple! Of course, these thoughts were mostly snapshot feelings that were quickly calmed when Neil took a big jump and successfully climbed the ladder again proving that he was not going to be a permanent tourist on the Moon. What a relief!

My budding engineering instinct recorded in my memory that little detail of man’s first steps on the Moon. Years later I learned the details of what actually happened, listening to the dialogue between Neil and Houston Control, which you can hear, and see, at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtwSgvstl8c. Hours earlier, the moon landing was so soft that the shock absorbers on the feet of the Lunar Module compressed much less than expected, leaving a distance of more than three feet between the last step of the ladder and the lunar surface! In the video, after verifying that he could return to where he came from, Neil described the situation with the ladder as ”adequate”! (The calm and control of the first man on the moon was a constant in his legendary career, which surely influenced his selection for this important mission).

Minutes later, Neil finally made his first step onto the lunar soil, uttering the famous phrase: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” There was complete silence that night, in that room in my house . . . a mixture of joy and emotion tying knots in our throats.

Subsequently, we intently watched Buzz Aldrin come down the ladder and get a foothold on the lunar soil.  We then witnessed the astronauts planting the flag of the United States and collecting lunar samples to bring back to Earth. Like in a science fiction scene, the ghostly silhouettes of the astronauts easily moved from side to side.  The feeling that what we were witnessing on that screen was being watched by millions of people of all cultures and faiths from all corners of the world, was present in every moment and it united us, at least for a short period of time, in a single humanity, giving us endless hope.

Unfortunately, I could not find a recording of the Argentinian television broadcast of that night. I did find these scenes from the documentary “For All Mankind” that shows what happened on the Moon that night in great detail: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMSJI45xE6g

The transmission finished in the early hours of Monday July 21 and we went to sleep, each changed a little differently by what we had just witnessed. To my parents, perhaps, what they experienced represented yet another of the dramatic events and advances of the 20th century amongst the ones they already had lived through: world wars, advances in communications, medicine, and transportation.

For me, what I experienced that night lit a small flame which would burn even brighter with Viking’s arrival to Mars in 1976 and that would eventually take me to other lands as I yearned to be part of that future and promise that Apollo put within our grasp.

 Apollo 11 Control Room

Photo of me in the historic Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston

In this blog, my intention is to share with you some of my experiences in this personal journey that would bring me closer to the heroes of my youth and the mythical places associated with that night in July and others that followed. I hope you like it.

@MigOnMars signing off …

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