Apollo 11: Forty Years Later

By David Bushman

“Oh, thank you television for letting us watch this one!”
—former astronaut Wally Schirra, Jr., on July 20, 1969, after Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon.

In the new-media age, when websites like Twitter and YouTube prove mighty enough to tilt history, it seems almost quaint to remember a time when television was THE medium, and its power extended all the way to the moon—238,000 miles out in space. On July 20, 1969, with hundreds of millions of awestruck TV viewers looking on from across the globe, the lunar module Eagle detached from the spaceship Columbia and landed on a large basaltic lunar plain known as the Sea of Tranquility; about four hours later, at 10:56 pm Eastern Daylight Time, Neil Armstrong emerged from the LM and became the first man to walk on the moon. (Continued)


The seeds of the Apollo space project had been planted seven years earlier, with President Kennedy’s famous declaration: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” No other space project, Kennedy told Congress, would be “more impressive to mankind.” With America locked in a space race that it appeared to be losing—the Soviets had already launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth, in 1957 and had beaten the U.S. to the punch by dispatching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space almost a month before Alan Shepard’s Mercury 3 mission—impressing mankind was hardly insignificant.

TV’s Greatest Show

Certainly, television could help. As media historian Erik Barnouw has noted, the Apollo project was, from the start, a “series of television shows.” In October 1968, Apollo 7 astronauts employed an onboard camera to send home images of the Earth from orbit; TV viewers could also see Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham floating around inside the spacecraft and holding up a sign that read: “Keep those cards and letters coming in, folks.” On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman took turns reading from “Genesis,” evoking, as Barnouw also pointed out, another Christmas Eve, sixty-two years earlier, when Reginald Fessenden read from the Bible to stunned wireless operators on ships in the Atlantic, who had been accustomed to hearing only dots and dashes on their earphones.

Apollo 11 was hyped as “the greatest show in the history of television.” The script called for Armstrong to descend onto the moon on a nine-step ladder extended from the Eagle; upon hitting the third rung from the bottom he was to open a storage bay, thus exposing the lens of a black-and-white TV camera.  The images from that camera—several of which have since become iconic—reached TV viewers back home on a 1.3-second delay, the time it takes for light to travel to Earth. Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin soon followed Armstrong onto the lunar surface, hauling a rock box for samples and a camera to pan the landscape, which he described as “magnificent desolation” (thus making Armstrong and Aldrin early practitioners of citizen journalism). The astronauts planted the American flag and left behind a gold replica of an olive branch, along with a plaque stating: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Back in the CBS studio, anchor Walter Cronkite—who to this day considers the moon landing the greatest event he ever covered—could barely contain his excitement: “Man is finally standing on the surface of the moon. My golly!” His colleague, Eric Sevareid, waxed philosophical: “Of course, the moon now is something different for the whole human race. There’s a price for everything. There isn’t any gain without some loss … When we physically possess the moon, I suppose it will dawn on us, in a sense that spiritually we lose the moon we had for thousands of years. At least in terms of its remoteness, its wonder and mystery, the romance and the poetry of it.” Ray Bradbury, among the numerous sci-fi writers rounded up for comment by the networks, remarked that with the moon landing mankind had begun “to discover we are really three billion lonely people on a small world.”

Tossing Their Hats over the Wall

For everyone involved, Apollo 11 was a huge success. For America, the moon landing inspired pride at home and admiration abroad—no small feat given that the country was mired in an unpopular war in Southeast Asia and was being ripped apart at home by race riots and antiwar demonstrations. For television, Apollo 11 emphasized an unparalleled ability to unify a divided nation—indeed, a large portion of the world—by offering a common viewing experience, bolstering David Sarnoff’s decades-old prediction that “the ultimate contribution of television will be its service toward the unification of the life of the nation.” Richard Salant, president of CBS News at the time, called Apollo 11, “the single most satisfying effort in our collective experience as journalists,” adding: “All too often we are forced to report man’s shortcomings. In this instance, from the moment of blastoff to the moment of splashdown, we were continually conscious of being involved in one of the great triumphs of human spirit … Because it was one of man’s greatest achievements, it was one of television’s greatest achievements.”

Kennedy himself had hailed the human spirit—our tireless drive to conquer new frontiers, whatever the risks—on November 21, 1963, at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio, Texas, referencing a story by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor: as a boy, O’Connor and his friends were walking along the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too imposing to scale, “they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall—and then they had no choice but to follow them.”

“This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it,” Kennedy continued. “Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against. With the vital help of this Aerospace Medical Center, with the help of all those who labor in the space endeavor, with the help and support of all Americans, we will climb this wall with safety and with speed—and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.”

Two days later, Kennedy was dead, but his dream lived on and, after six hard, tumultuous years for this country, was finally realized in July 1969. Apollo 11 turned out to be the first of five missions landing a man on the moon; the final journey, Apollo 17, launched on December 7, 1972, making astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt the last men to walk on the moon (at least for now). Like Armstrong and Aldrin, they left behind a plaque, this one saying “Here man completed his first exploration of the moon, December 1972 AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.”

The Age of Apollo was over.

For more information:
NASA - Apollo 40th Anniversary

The film strip images at right are from the moon book, produced by Lou Dorfsman for CBS News. Photos from NASA.


At the Paley Center

The Paley Center in Los Angeles:
The Paley Center celebrates the fortieth anniversary of landing a man on the moon by screening the actual news footage of that historical mission and other highlights, July 18 to 19 at 12:30 pm.

The Paley Center in New York:
The Paley Center celebrates the fortieth anniversary of landing a man on the moon with a media gallery of Apollo 11–themed fact and fiction from the collection in the Spielberg Gallery. Included with general admission.

Playing in the gallery are excerpts from the CBS 1989 documentary special, The Moon Above, The Earth Below; HBO's 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon: "Mare Tranquiltatis”; the 1989 CBS News Special Man on the Moon; and the entire 1994 Turner Production Moon Shot (descriptions follow).

From the Earth to the Moon: “Mare Tranquilitatis” (1998): Episode six of the Emmy-winning HBO miniseries from producers Ron Howard and Tom Hanks dramatizes the nail-biting Apollo 11 lunar landing, plus the crew’s painstaking preparation for the big event.

Man on the Moon (1989): This excerpt from the CBS documentary focuses on Apollo 11’s most iconic moments: Neil Armstrong’s nifty piloting of the Eagle onto the lunar surface (“The Eagle has landed”) and Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The Moon Above, the Earth Below (1989): In this CBS documentary, Dan Rather and Charles Kuralt take turns exploring not just the Apollo 11 mission itself, but also the everyday lives of Americans back on Earth as Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins enact their historic mission.

Moon Shot (1994): TBS’s Peabody-winning two-part documentary, narrated by actor Barry Corbin as astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton, recounts the dramatic history of the U.S. space program—both its successes and setbacks—up through the Apollo missions from the perspectives of those who lived it.


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