There was a lot of “do you remember where you were?” talk this week, with the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong bringing back memories for those of us old enough to have watched or listened to the first moon landing on July 21, 1969.
The son of one of my friends posted a link to Walter Cronkite’s historic broadcast of the moon walk on Facebook, with the comment: “My mum tells me I watched this while having a breastfeed.”
I remember where I was too. I was 11, at school in New Zealand. But to be honest, my memory of that momentous day is somewhat hazy. I remember that the broadcast was played into our classrooms over the school loud-speaker system. I’m not even sure if we had a television at that time. We probably did, but what I remember most was the newspaper coverage.
That was also the year that I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Perhaps that – and an embryonic interest in history and world affairs – is why I kept the clippings from my local newspaper. Today I fished them out of the bottom of a tin trunk in the corner of my bedroom and marvelled that I had kept so much.
My collection starts on July 11 with an eight-page supplement about the coming moon landing. I have a few front pages including the one of July 21 which screams: MEN ON THE MOON, and underneath in red ink “Astronaut Armstrong first man to set foot on extraterrestrial soil”. There are other clippings too, right up until the astronauts were released from isolation, 21 days after they returned safely to Earth.
The newspaper, The Northern Advocate, was where I would start my journalism cadetship straight out of school five years later. Now, I look at those pages and smile. Newspapers looked a little different then, and who knows how long they will be around. But they still give me a thrill. The Advocate was an afternoon paper, and the moon walk happened at 2.55pm New Zealand time. Now I know what kind of planning would have been underway to get that front page out. The presses – those wonderful, thundering, rolling machines at the back of the building – would have been held until the news was through that the moon walk had been a success.
And even then, they got it wrong. It’s probable the front page report was written after a reporter listened to the crackly broadcast on the radio. The quote from Armstrong reads: “One small step for man, one great stride for men”. Close, but no cigar. History has etched the real words in our minds.
Some of the snippets of news are wonderful. The revelation that the Chinese media was silent on events happening above them, and “it is likely the Chinese public will not be told about the arrival of the first men on the moon”. That all around New Zealand, people were listening to a music network dedicated to “moon music” – songs like Fly Me to the Moon, Blue Moon, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, and Everyone’s Gone to the Moon – piped into department stores, offices, shops, restaurants and factories.
Scientific discovery had stripped all the mystery from the moon by then. We knew it wasn’t made of Swiss cheese, and that no cow could possibly jump over it. We knew it was dust and rock and uninhabitable for us. But still…there was something heroic about those men, going out into the unknown like other explorers before them had done on Earth.
Neil Armstrong turned out to be a humble, retiring man. While his name was always famous, he didn’t seek the limelight, and his fellow astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (who stepped onto the moon just after him, but would always be “the bridesmaid”) and Michael Collins, the command module pilot, would have higher public profiles as the years passed.
But there was real sorrow when Armstrong died last week of complications after heart surgery at the age of 82.
Asked how people could best honour Neil Armstrong, his family said in a statement: “Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil and give him a wink.”
So tonight I walked out into the darkness of my backyard – careful not to disturb the possums or the nesting bush turkeys – and looked up at the moon. It is high in the inky sky, silver, shining brightly and almost full. It is beautiful.
I smile up at it, and give it a wink. Vale Neil Armstrong.