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Watching Apollo 11 with Uncle Walter

Walter Cronkite keeps his eyes on his monitor

Walter Cronkite keeps his eyes on his monitor as the Apollo 11 lunar module touches down on the moon on July 20, 1969. Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

July 20,1969, was a Sunday, and the weather forecast in New York was cloudy with a chance of showers. The three networks were about to go wall-to-wall ( TV Guide would later estimate there had been a total of 31 hours of continuous three-network coverage that day and into the next).

 At ABC, Frank Reynolds and Jules Bergman anchored with assists from Apollo 8's Frank Borman, while "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling moderated a panel of science fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov. At NBC, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Frank McGee filled the hours, along with Nobel laureate Harold Urey, who discussed the solar system's origins.

Then, there was CBS, which was first to get on the air with Apollo coverage at 8:35 a.m. The nation's most popular anchor, Walter Cronkite, would oversee the most-viewed coverage of the moon landing mission, beginning at 11 that morning. He'd be on the air almost continuously until early the following morning, when Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module at approximately 2:12 a.m. eastern time.

CBS offered some unique twists too. Special guests included entertainer Bob Hope, sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke and actor/director Orson Welles -- his expertise on space travel presumably limited to his famous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938. An interview with former president Lyndon Johnson would air that evening.

By 1969, network television news had reached maturity after a decade of trial by fire. Cronkite had long since earned the fond sobriquet "Old Iron Pants" for the endurance records he had set covering other major news events, beginning with the 1952 Democratic and Republican conventions, then the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. By 1969, coverage of Vietnam had established TV's role on the front line -- a controversial and profoundly influential role --  which also secured Cronkite's position as undisputed leader. Viewers had long expected to have the world refracted through his calming and steadfast demeanor. On July 20, they expected nothing less.

 For most of those hours Cronkite was joined by Apollo (also Mercury and Gemini) astronaut Wally Schirra as his on-air expert consultant, who helped decipher the crosstalk between NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston and the command module Columbia.

Here is a pivotal hour, leading up to the historic moment ("the Eagle has landed"), followed by Cronkite's memorable reaction.

Sunday, 3:30 p.m.

Cronkite is joined by commentator Eric Sevareid, who describes the approaching landing as "the slowest most drawn out performance we've ever seen," then checks himself: "Except maybe the Passion Play at Oberammergau [which usually runs five hours..]" Severeid then switches the subject to entomology: "I thought about the lander and why it looks like an insect [because] it's totally functional and...maybe ought to look like an insect [because] they're the only things we know on earth that can walk on water, live in a boiling geyser -- that's why some entomologists think they will do away with man someday." Sevareid then appears to realize this train of thought isn't going anywhere, and switches topics: "We're worrying about germs on the moon," then adds, "with some of the things that have landed on it, they must have left microorganisms."


Cronkite is joined by Newell Trask, a taciturn official with the U.S. Geological Survey, who attempts to explain a visual of the moon surface. Cronkite does most of the talking: "Maybe this will give us some clue as to what the moon is made of, other than green cheese." The levity is lost on Trask, who promises Cronkite that the astronauts will not sink in moondust.


As the module prepares for lunar landing, more than a half-hour from this point, CBS News then starts to display what it labels a "CBS News simulation" -- a rudimentary model of a spacecraft moving far above a simulated moon surface. By now, Cronkite and Schirra are entirely dependent on sporadic audio transmissions from the control center, and without visual aides of their own, use this simulation to guide viewers.


Cronkite explains that they are about "eight minutes [from] what they call powered descent initiation." This means, he says, that the astronauts will "fire off the propulsion engine again," which will slow the module descent. He then reads a roll call of the top officials who are watching from Mission Control — including aerospace engineert Wernher von Braun, NASA flight director Gene Kranz and astronauts Deke Slayton and John Glenn. Cronkite: "Wally Schirra is watching on the edge of his seat here, in New York."


Cronkite awaits the critical power descent phase, just a few minutes away, and when it arrives, viewers see the simulation of the orbiting module, now with a (simulated) flame emitting from it, appearing almost as a candle. For a long moment, Cronite and Schirra say nothing, as communications crackle between the Columbia and Houston.


It's now exactly 10 minutes to landing, and the gravity of that fact --  a mere 10 minutes! -- seems to overwhelm Cronkite. "Oh boy," he says, and not for the first time. "Ten minutes to a landing on the moon." Schirra follows with, "10 years since we've been trying to do this." Cronkite then says, "in about four minutes from now, they'll get a look at the landing area."


At the five-minute-to-touchdown mark, Cronkite cuts to remotes of crowds watching around the world. He then says, "four and a half minutes left … oh boy." He explains that the lander is moving about "760 feet per second on the way down and it's as slow as man has ever flown in space … they'll get down to 98 miles per hour [when it's] 5 miles from the landing site."


With less than a mile from the moon surface, the lander is cleared for landing. "The data is coming in beautifully," marvels Schirra. Cronkite is silent, then there is chatter from Mission Control and the lander, some of the comments cryptic: "Picking up some dust … two and a half down … drifting over to the right a little. 30 seconds..."


Schirra: "We're home!" Cronkite: "Man on the moon!" Then, those iconic words from 238,900 miles away: "The Eagle has landed." Cut to the studio, and an overwhelmed Cronkite, who proceeds to remove his glasses and rub the bridge of his nose: "...Boy." Then, "Wally, say something. I'm speechless." Cronkite then says, "We've been wondering what they would say when they stepped foot on the moon, and just to hear them do it, we're left with dry mouths, and speechless."


With nothing to see (yet) CBS switches to a new simulation, which will fill the screen for long stretches over the next several hours, until Armstrong sets foot on the moon. It is a model of the landing module, and simply labeled: "Lunar Module Simulation, Grumman, Bethpage, Long Island."

Within a minute or two, Cronkite gives the official landing time of 4:17:42 Eastern Daylight Time on this day, July 20 1969."  After many hours of coverage, the "Most Trusted Man in America" - old Iron Pants himself — once again falls silent, admitting that "I'm emotionally exhausted and we haven't got down the [module] steps yet."

That's still several hours away. Cronkite then throws the coverage to a CBS News reporter standing outside the home of Armstrong's parents, Stephen and Viola Armstrong. The reporter wonders, "Some have said an event like this could bring the whole country together."

Viola Armstrong says, "We hope so. We hope so."


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