I know just where I was 50 years ago this week, on a sweltering July evening.
Giddy with excitement, my brothers and I were waiting to watch one of the most historic events of our lifetime. Ever so far away from our dinner table in a rented house in Minnesota, two men a small spacecraft 384,400km above our heads were preparing to land on the moon.
We were far from home, too. My father, a doctor, had been granted a sabbatical break from his respiratory specialist work in northern California. For most of the summer of 1969, he zigzagged us around the United States and Canada, doing a bit of research work, but primarily, we were on the road to visit friends and family.
June had passed blissfully in southern California, where we’d spent a month in a vintage 1920s apartment in Santa Monica. My brothers and I split our time between hanging out on the beach and befriending the crew and actors filming scenes for a popular but silly TV comedy called Love, American Style in the park across the road (even at my age, I knew the jokes were stupid).
To our horror, the TV sputtered into static fuzz
Decades later, I would be entranced to discover we had been in Santa Monica because my father was involved in some unusual computer research work at the Rand Corporation. Unusually for an MD, Dad was working on an early expert system with some computer scientists. I got to play a game of hangman with a famous computer there, one that's now a museum exhibit – but that's another story.
By July, we were thousands of miles away in the midwest, which lacked the allure of outdoor lunches with Hollywood actors, but did feature dozens of favourite cousins. And along with the rest of the nation, we were on countdown, awaiting the first man on the moon with the kind of intense anticipation and expectation otherwise reserved for Christmas.
An agonising wait
The day arrived. After an afternoon at the local pool, we had our family dinner and then an agonising wait began: the main action wouldn’t begin until well into the night. We were allowed to stay up late, sweating in our pyjamas, to watch the broadcast on the house’s black and white TV.
To our horror, the TV sputtered into static fuzz. Were we to be deprived of this moment in history because of someone else’s broken electronics?
That year, every country in the world seemed to issue commemorative moon landing stamps
Dad performed some Dad-ish manoeuvres – whacked the set, fussed with the aerial – and, to our relief, the image resolved back into those that have entered history: the anxious faces at Mission Control, the famous ladder descent and moon walk, the juddering chat, the black and white screen a perfect colourless home for pale moondust, the pristine white of Armstrong and Aldrin’s spacesuits, and the dark pitch of the lunar sky.
We went to bed thrilled, and awoke to a new world in which, at least for a time, it seemed that science could darn well do anything, that we were on the cusp of boldly going anywhere we could imagine, and where any of us might grow up to be astronauts.
Space food ‘treats’
On the mundane side, industry too saw opportunity. Our school lunches in the autumn were packed with various space food “treats” – Tang, the instant powdered orange juice drink, Space Food Sticks in various (horrible) flavours, Pudding Cup desserts in a pulltab tin, and other astronauty things in squeezable packets.
That year, every country in the world seemed to issue commemorative moon landing stamps, too. I know this because my father had initiated me into stamp collecting and I subscribed back then to a service that sent out stamp sets on spec, that I’d buy with my allowance.
At first I adored this panorama of space philately, and carefully placed my new purchases in my giant stamp album, especially treasuring a 3D stamp of the three Apollo 11 astronauts. Eventually, I tired of so many contemporary stamps, which didn’t seem as interesting as old stamps featuring long-ago events. But, yes, I still have those space stamps, beloved now.
The moon landing, at 50 this week, is itself a long ago event, as far away in years from us these days, as the first World War was to those who watched Armstrong take his small step and giant leap. A subject on old stamps.
But what a technological achievement, at once extraordinary and yet by today’s standards, almost comically low-tech – which only makes it all the more extraordinary.
For me, no other event will ever quite compare. It rests in increasingly distant memory like moonglow, pale and wondrous and inspiring.