41° Good Morning
41° Good Morning
Long Island

50 years ago: 'The Eagle has landed!' on the moon

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the surface of

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the surface of the moon, July 20, 1969.   Credit: NASA

Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.

Apollo 11 had accomplished its mission.  

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong put his left boot on the lunar surface, pocked with dead volcanoes and asteroid craters.

A glorious display of smarts and guts. A defining moment for a generation of Americans. And a point of immense pride for Long Island, where the lunar module — the Eagle — was designed, built and tested. 

Hundreds of millions of people from coast to coast and around the globe tuned in late at night to see Armstrong take his first steps.

Moms and Dads coaxed sleepy kids out of bed to watch Walter Cronkite anchor the live telecast on CBS.

When the moment came, at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Cronkite was so overcome that he took off his glasses, shook his head and looked away from the camera.

"Oh, boy," he said, half to himself, half to his rapt audience. 

That day — a Sunday — had been a dozen years in the making.

Americans had put a man on the moon. And they had done it first, before the Soviets.

But the triumph was about much more than winning the space race: It was about championing democracy and beating back Communism. It was about being brave and erasing doubt. And, most important, it was about restoring a sense of self.

Early on, in October 1957, the Soviets gained the upper hand in space exploration. They launched an unmanned satellite, Sputnik. But the Americans ultimately prevailed, by putting a man on the moon.

The flight of Apollo 11 was epic, but it wasn't easy — and it wouldn't have been possible without a bold president with a vision, the commitment of a nation, billions of dollars and thousands of the best minds.

"Looking back on the United States in the 20th century, you might very well say that going to the moon was the crowning achievement of that particular civilization," said science historian Matthew Hersch, who teaches at Harvard University. "It was a powerful demonstration that when humans decide to do something — particularly Americans — they can do it."

But the country wasn't always so confident. Sputnik was a sucker punch. Americans saw the Soviet Union morph from World War II ally to Cold War arch nemisis, and the transformation scared them. Space exploration, as they saw it, was simply the backdrop for something much bigger: military dominance.

Washington, though, misjudged the fear about Moscow. For days after the satellite launch, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was silent. When the commander in chief finally sensed that he needed to calm the public, he described the Soviet feat to reporters as “one small ball in the air" and downplayed the notion of a space race.

"No one ever suggested to me … a great psychological advantage in world politics to putting the thing up," Eisenhower said of Sputnik. "In view of the real scientific character of our development, there didn't seem to be a reason for just trying to grow hysterical about it."

The dynamic shifted three years later, in November 1960, when the country elected Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy to succeed Eisenhower.

Kennedy saw that when the Soviets put the Sputnik satellite up in 1957, … that we could not afford to be first on Earth and second in space," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who was on Long Island this spring for an Apollo 11 50th anniversary conference. "The new world to explore was outer space, which Kennedy called the new sea," Brinkley said. 

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard ..."

President John F. Kennedy in his "moon speech"

In April 1961, roughly three months after Kennedy moved into the White House, the Kremlin claimed superiority again: Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, orbiting the Earth in 108 minutes. Three weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space but didn't circle the planet.

Gagarin's accomplishment was another devastating blow for the United States — and the Kennedy administration recognized that simply catching up to the Soviet Union wasn't good enough. 

Uncle Sam had to win the space race and the path to victory was a singular, galvanizing goal: a manned lunar landing. 

The week before Memorial Day, Kennedy laid out his vision to a joint session of Congress in a special speech on urgent national needs — all tied to the Cold War, to freedom winning over tyranny.

"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," Kennedy told lawmakers. "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

The president's persuasive powers worked on Congress. By July, Kennedy had what he requested in additional funds for NASA. By the time Armstrong stepped on the moon, the total cost for the effort stood at $25 billion — $180 billion in today's dollars, Brinkley said.

There is no question that [NASA] wouldn't have gotten funded by the Congress if there wasn't an anti-communist, beat-the-Soviets core to the program,” Brinkley said.

Still, not everyone was sold. The detractors — many everyday citizens — saw a moon mission as folly, a young president's pipe dream, a colossal waste of time and money.

Kennedy, though, would not be deterred. He knew he needed buy-in. And he was determined to get it. He decided to take his case directly to the people.

In September 1962, with what historians call the moon speech, Kennedy silenced the critics and rallied the nation. Unabashedly, he reminded a crowd of 40,000 in Houston what America was about: peace, freedom and doing good in the world, for the world. Space exploration was inevitable, he said, and the United States should be the nation leading the charge.

"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people … only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war." 

With commanding clarity, Kennedy went on: 

''But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? … We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The country's new commitment bolstered NASA's fledgling Apollo program. The push to win the space race was on. 

Rocket test flights and unmanned missions took up roughly the six years of the decadelong program. They succeeded. But an epic setback was coming. 

On Jan. 27, 1967, America had its first fatalities in the short history of human spaceflight. Less than a month from the launch of Apollo 1, during a test, the spacecraft caught fire on the launchpad. All three astronauts died — Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee.

The nation was stunned and heartbroken. NASA investigated for months. Engineers duplicated the command module and recreated the minutes leading up to the fire. The cause: a design failure. Then, they reworked everything. 

Nearly two years later, in October 1968, the first manned Apollo flight launched. The successes came rapid fire. Apollo 8. Apollo 9. Apollo 10. And then Apollo 11, the crowning jewel. The mission that put a man on the moon. 

Four days after takeoff, at 10:56 p.m. on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped off the last rung of the Eagle. 

That's small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Latest Long Island News