Cronkite 92, Apollo 11, and a 12-year-old’s wonderment

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

Many of you will have already heard the news that Walter Cronkite, former CBS News anchor, passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Cronkite was a mainstay in most American family’s homes in the 60s and 70s and also in many Canadian’s. His prime years coincided with my youth and adolescence and the budding of my interest in politics. His coverage of the Viet Nam war and the Watergate scandal — two pivotal events that helped me awaken to the worlds of politics and international relations — are etched in my memory.

But it is another event in Cronkite’s illustrious career that I remember most — his coverage of the historic landing of humans on the moon.

This coming Monday, July 2oth, will mark the 40th anniversary of that momentous event. To quote from NASA’s own website:

On July 20, 1969, the human race accomplished its single greatest technological achievement of all time when a human first set foot on another celestial body.

Six hours after landing at 4:17 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining), Neil A. Armstrong took the “Small Step” into our greater future when he stepped off the Lunar Module, named “Eagle,” onto the surface of the Moon, from which he could look up and see Earth in the heavens as no one had done before him.

He was shortly joined by “Buzz” Aldrin, and the two astronauts spent 21 hours on the lunar surface and returned 46 pounds of lunar rocks. After their historic walks on the Moon, they successfully docked with the Command Module “Columbia,” in which Michael Collins was patiently orbiting the cold but no longer lifeless Moon.

Apollo 11 lift off with Saturn V rocket

Apollo 11 lift off with Saturn V rocket

My own anticipation of the 4oth anniversary has been growing over the last few weeks. As a pre-adolescent boy, I was obssessed with the Apollo space program. I had sticker books documenting each mission, numerous models of the spacecrafts which I had meticulously assembled, a scrap book of clippings from the newspaper, and, most importantly, my cheap little telescope which I used to regularly survey the night sky. One advantage of growing up on a farm is that the night sky is spectacular in its vividness.

I would often daydream about what it would be like to fly into space, feeling the awesome g forces as the powerful Saturn V rockets burned there way towards outer space, feeling the beginning of weightlessness. I dreamed of what space itself would look like and how the earth would appear looking back upon it. And, of course, I imagined that it would be MY feet that would first touch the surface of this foreign orb we call the moon.

So, the Apollo 11 mission was one I followed avidly and one I still keenly remember.

I remember the lift-off, always a tense moment, but always one that filled me with excitement as the slow upward climb gained more and more speed.

I remember following the progress of the space module as it made it’s 3-day journey across the 250,000 mile expanse of space.

I remember the moment Buzz Aldrin announced, “The Eagle has landed.”

I remember our minister concluding the evening service early at our Baptist church  so that we could all make it home in time to witness this event.

And, of course, I remember Neil Armstrong’s slow descent down the ladder of the lunar module, and then those famous words, as his feet touched the moon’s surface, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I ached to be on the moon with him as a I watched him trundle on the moon’s surface and take large, bouncy steps under it’s lesser gravity.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

As I watched, I was inspired with an idea. Perhaps I could see Armstrong and Aldrin directly on the moon without the TV. I headed outdoors with my trusty toy telescope. I was keenly disappointed when I discovered that I was unable to see either the Lunar Module or the astronauts themselves. Nonetheless, it was still a magical, marvelous evening.

I look forward to the coverage the anniversary will bring over the next couple of days and with it, a chance to relive my boyhood wonderment.

I wish Cronkite had lived to see the 4oth anniversary. My renewed sense of wonder and awe over the next few days will now be tinged with sadness at this good man’s passing.

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