When Apollo 11 took off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969, with three astronauts who intended to rendezvous with the moon four days later, it was not a foregone conclusion that the mission would be successful. Still Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins were willing to wager their lives on NASA’s technical ingenuity and their years of training.
Anyone who was alive and within reach of a television that Sunday night was glued to the screen in anticipation of a moment humans had only fantasized about until the evening of July 20, 1969.
Though the Apollo 11 astronauts would eventually plant an American flag on the moon’s surface, they still managed to transcend the petty bounds of patriotism by representing all of humanity as our first ambassadors to the galaxy. It was one of the few moments in history when millions of people experienced the same alternating waves of joy and anxiety — which lasted the 22 hours that Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin were on the moon. Will there ever be another event to rival July 20, 1969, for sheer awe, exhilaration and nervousness?
When Neil Armstrong descended the stairs backward from the lander at 10:56 p.m., there was something poetic about how gingerly he stepped to the surface of the lunar body that had watched humanity’s birth with mute indifference. He was as awed by the experience of being the first person to walk on the moon as the rest of us were at witnessing it.
Four days later, the lunar module with its brave crew was fished from the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii after making a successful trip back to Earth. There would be less than a half dozen other missions to the moon before the Apollo program was scrapped. Forty-five years ago this week, humanity became a player on the cosmic stage. It feels even more like a dream now than it did then.