It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 touched down on the moon and Commander Neil Armstrong set foot on the fine-grained lunar surface, a standout ‘first’ in the history of mankind. It was – and still is – a pinnacle of human achievement and one of those momentous life events that’s become permanently lodged in our memories, if you happened to be around at the time.
Do you remember where you were you when Neil Armstrong took that first bouncy step?
I was in Year 2, and remember it clearly. It was a pretty big day at school: classes combined to watch the event live as it happened in the early afternoon of 21 July. We had box of a television, sitting atop a tall, wheeled stand, which was pushed to the front left corner of the class. There were only two or three TVs in the school and they had to be wheeled from class to class to those who needed them, so on this day they had to be shared. The screen wasn’t that big and the image wasn’t that sharp, but I can picture the whole classroom scene with complete clarity.
We all cheered, of course, sitting squashed in our seats overloaded with visiting students from another class, with little comprehension of the complexities and challenges of making such an event occur. The old timber school desks we watched from had attached bench seats with wrought iron filigree decoration at the sides of the open desk shelves and a sunken inkwell at the top, furniture surely incongruous with this modern scientific feat, yet here we were watching it happen. Men arriving on the moon aided with computers far less powerful than the ones we now carry around in our pockets every day.
We watched that vision over and over for days and weeks afterwards, proud of this great achievement we had absolutely nothing to do with. And we waited with bated breath as the three astronauts – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – made their way back to earth, another huge feat in itself. I know the dangers of that now that I’ve watched Tom Hanks in Apollo 13. The whole thing is fraught. I’m far more amazed now at the scientific achievement than I was capable of at the time.
I’m also amazed, looking back at the vision of the day, at how many men (many of whom bore a striking resemblance to Seventh Day Adventist street-walkers with their white shirt and thin black ties and thick rimmed glasses) smoked incessantly in those control rooms.
So now as we celebrate the anniversary of this remarkable scientific milestone 50 years later, I’m turning into a space nerd and have been devouring all the stories and reading all the things. We took the grandkids off to the Canberra Deep Space Station at Tidbinbilla to look at their fabulous space display—the space suits, the rockets, the fridge-sized computer. We had good up-close look at the piece of actual-really-and-truly-from-the-moon rock and marvelled at the dreadful looking space food. It was fantastic to hear Miss 5 ask where the girl astronauts were. Great question! Her mum was proud. Thankfully we found one to show her.
But of course it was the giant 46-metre satellite dish that was particularly worthy of note. This big dish built in the 60s, now retired and moved from its previous home at nearby Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, was the very one responsible for picking up and transmitting those very first black and white grainy images of the first steps on the moon and transmitted them to NASA where they were then sent to the rest of the world. On this side of the world we even got to see those images about a third of a second before the northern hemisphere.
If you want to know more about that big dish and the first few minutes of transmission from Canberra and next few hours from Parkes, take a look at the article I wrote for HerCanberra: How Canberra played a role in the 1969 Moon landing. It was a pretty exciting and ever changing day for those involved.
That article also gives a list of places in Canberra you can join in some of the celebrations of the 50 year anniversary and get a quick moon-fix. Some of the now elderly folk who were involved in the day as trackers and technicians are taking part in the celebrations and will be talking about the big event – what a remarkable day for them it must have been.
If you live outside Canberra, don’t panic—there are lots of events around the country as well so you can join in the moon obsession around Australia. Or have a look here: https://apollo11.csiro.au/events/ You can also Join in one of the moon activities during moon-themed National Science Week from 10-18 August.
Do you remember where you were when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon?