20 July, 1969: Apollo 11 Mission lands men on the Moon, in the Sea of Tranquillity.
In these days of rapid technological advances and diminishing personal heroism, it is easy to forget how earth-shaking this achievement was. But anyone alive and out of nappies in July 1969 won’t forget.
“From time immemorial men have gazed into the sky and pondered, theorised, even worshipped ‘the silver ornament of night‘”.*
At Rice University in Houston, 12 September 1962, President John Kennedy said: “…the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and the planets beyond…We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding…But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?…We choose to go the moon. We choose to go the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall [go] to the moon….and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out, then we must be bold.”
There have been a few conspiracy theories to the effect the whole thing was cooked-up in a television studio somewhere, Capricorn One-style (e.g., see the online article, 10 Reasons the Moon Landings Could be a Hoax by Josh Fox). To some, a global confidence trick is easier to swallow than a heroic gesture.
How the heck would you keep that monstrous con quiet, though? And those footprints on the surface of the Moon, which you can verify from earth (with the right equipment), are they just a coincidence? Or a trick of the light? Surely they are the scratch marks of the eagle’s claws, and those of the missions since Apollo 11? The solid evidence of unmanned Luna and Ranger visits in the 1960s also corroborates the venture.
Apparently, the first Moon meal was “four bacon squares, three sugar cookie cubes each, peaches, a pineapple-grapefruit drink, and coffee.”* (How dull.) The astronauts also had to take a collect call from President Richard Nixon.
Naturally, this was fairly tightly scripted, at least on the earthly side. However, a flash of inspiration added the memorable bit. Watching the televised events unfold at his home, senior Nixon speech-writer William Safire, noting the lunar module had landed in Mare Tranquilitatis, recalled:
“I said to my wife, “That’s the point for the President to make, don’t you think? To pick up the tranquillity theme? She said yes, dear, and patted my hand; there was something inherently ridiculous about me, one of the tens of millions of viewers around the world, acting as if I were some kind of participant…..I reached for the phone and called the duty officer at the White House…I asked him to pass along to the President the thought that tranquillity should be his keynote…the President came on the screen with the telephone call to the men on the moon; it was brief, but the central point spoken by the President was: ‘As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquillity, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to Earth.’ My message had gone a quarter-million miles; I got the creepiest feeling…”**
In 1969, the Cold War raged over many theatres on Earth. The Moon Shot was obviously a stratagem in that conflict, but it also represented a chance for humankind to put itself literally above the battle. Hence Nixon’s reference to Peace and Tranquillity. Hence the badging of Apollo 11, showing an Eagle with an olive branch in its claws.[*John M. Mansfield Man on the Moon 1969.] [**William Safire Before the Fall 1975.]