It was one of those jarring moments when I read about the death of Neil Armstrong on 25 August 2012 on the internet. I cannot say I knew him personally because it would be a lie, but I do know that in non-conspiratorial eyes he was the first man that walked on the moon. (Conspiracy lovers, do NOT read any further).
I sat trying to think about how it would feel to be the first man on the moon, and for once my often overworked imagination was not able to assist. To stand at the foot of the LEM and make that tentative first step must have taken a lot of courage. However, reading about the man I suspect he viewed it very differently. Maybe once he returned home safely he was able to look back and say “I was the first…” It is a very elite club to belong to, and he is the one we remember the most.
I have always tried to tell people that the moon landings were not only about the physical accomplishment, but rather about the era, the courage, determination, and often sheer lunacy of the achievement. You had to be alive at the time to really understand it. Anybody born after 20 July 1969 missed the pinnacle moment of the space race. My own memories are strange, I was in Grade 2 (second year in school) and the rumour went around the school that when they landed on the moon it would come crashing down to earth, so we were all a little apprehensive. I do not recall listening to it live on the wireless, although it is probable that I heard about it on the news on Springbok Radio. It was more of an event that we read about in the Sunday papers. They would have these huge double page spreads in colour with all the views from space and the rockets and the men who were going out there.
The first visuals I saw were probably at the bioscope where the story would feature on “African Mirror”. And the actual moon landing and walking were really not what a heap of bloodthirsty youngsters wanted to see, we really wanted to see that Saturn V climb the tower and we wanted to see the command module as it floated into the Pacific at the end of its parachutes. I suspect we also wanted to see aliens swoop down and shoot it all out of the sky! But that’s another story.
Space related toys were all the rage too, and quirky battery driven rockets that spun and hissed and sparkled were a definite want to have. I had this strange console affair with a toy LEM and Command module that rotated around a central pillar with a tin moon it it. By twiddling a button it was possible to “dock” them. Strange, Now where did I leave it??
It was only later that it would dawn on us that we had lived through one of the crowning achievements of our time. The whole space race from the early Gemini to the last of the Apollo flights were always the highlights of our newspaper reading though, and we all wanted to be astronauts! The end of Apollo and the entry of the Space Shuttle into service really heralded the “routineness” of space flight. And unless something went wrong shuttles tended to only garner a mention in the media. My only real live encounter with the space race was in 1999 when I saw the Apollo 15 Command module at Wright Patterson AFB in the USA. All I have is a poor quality grainy image to remind me of it; I really should have taken a closer look…
I was also able to see the Apollo 10 Command Module at the Science Museum when I was in London in 2016.
However, the men that landed on the moon had done something that was in the realm of science fiction. And Neil Armstrong is probably the most well known astronaut from the moon landings. Nobody remembers the second person to walk on the moon (Buzz Aldrin). Sadly Michael Collins lost his life to cancer in April 2021.
Rest in Peace Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins