Moon landing transfixed the nation

Way Back When

History: As astronauts set foot on the Earth's satellite, Marylanders held their breath and stayed glued to their sets.

July 17, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

A summer before, the nation had paused in its grief and gathered around TVs to watch Robert F. Kennedy's funeral services and the passage of the special train that conveyed his remains from New York City to Washington for burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

A little over a year later, on July 20, 1969, Marylanders and people across the nation once again clustered around televisions and radios in living rooms and bars and other public places to follow the hair-raising progress of astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. and Lt. Col. Michael Collins as they sped through space on Apollo 11 and prepared to land on the surface of the moon.

Churchgoers that Sunday morning listened to sermons that contained joy and criticism of the space mission.

The Very Rev. John N. Peabody, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, quoted from Genesis -- "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" -- and added, "That as we stand now on the threshold of the greatest scientific accomplishment in the history of mankind, let us offer to God our prayers for the safety of these courageous men and our praise to Almighty God for the marvels He has made known to us."

Across town at Heritage United Church of Christ, Rev. Wendell H. Phillips, the church's pastor, offered a different view.

"We have suddenly become so concerned and care so much about what is happening to the astronauts as they shoot to the moon, while at the same time, over a vast number of years, we have been so callous and unconcerned about the invisible people, our poor and blacks, who have been pushed down into the very depths of hell," Rev. Phillips said.

"Business was off at golf clubs, restaurants, bars and even The Block. ... State Police reported that traffic was slightly down at the Harbor Tunnel, very light on the Beltway but heavy on roads leading out of Ocean City," reported The Sun. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge experienced its usual Sunday night back-up, causing The Sun to quip, "not even a moon shot can stem the tide of motorists on the race from a weekend at the beach."

A spokesman for WJZ-TV estimated that about 40 persons had telephoned the station to complain about the space landing displacing a scheduled ballgame.

After Apollo 11 safely landed on the moon's Sea of Tranquillity, Armstrong initiated the historic first conversation between the moon and Earth with these words: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed."

At 10: 56 p.m., descending a latter of nine rungs on one of the legs of the lunar landing craft, Armstrong was followed by Aldrin. Collins remained aboard the mother ship orbiting above.

At 11: 14 p.m., Armstrong's foot touched the powdery lunar surface, and he said: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." About 25 minutes later, he and Aldrin erected an American flag on a staff not too far away from the Eagle.

President Richard M. Nixon called the astronauts from the White House, some 242,000 miles away, at 11: 47 p.m. and said "for every American this has to be the proudest day of our lives. The heavens have become part of man's world."

"At a bar on Greenmount Avenue, some 30 customers watched the televised space show in dead silence, exchanging comments only during commercials.

"At another bar in the 200 block of West Chase Street, one man explained that he and his fellow patrons were watching the astronauts because `What the hell else is there to do?'

"He added that he would watch the moon walk later, `If I'm sober enough,' " reported The Sun.

"Even the Baltimore city Police Department succumbed to the astronautical-atmosphere affecting the city," said the newspaper.

At 5 p.m., a bulletin went out on the police wire: "Assault by touching down. Wanted in the district for the above offense, which occurred at 09.54 degrees of the Sea of Tranquillity, three white men wearing white suits."

"It is still almost incredible that in the afternoon of a Sunday on earth two humans found themselves within a vehicle resting on the surface of the moon," said a Sun editorial.

"Nothing could quite prepare one's mind for that, or for the subsequent moment of climax, the actual setting of a human foot on the substance of our barren satellite. One of the mysteries that has engaged the inquisitive mind of man is now made tangible. Others remain, beyond our planet and upon it."

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