Forty Years Ago

Few remember how bitter and urgent the race to the moon was, or that the Soviet Union actually launched a lunar probe shortly before the United States sent Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin on their way.

The Soviet probe, Luna 15, left Earth on July 13, 1969, three days before Apollo 11’s liftoff. Many suspected it might be carrying cosmonauts to the moon; some worried it was a missile intended to slam into our astronauts. In reality, Luna 15 did not carry a crew; it orbited the moon 52 times, then harmlessly impacted the surface on July 21, the day after the American landing.

[NASA photo of Apollo 11 liftoff]

At 9:32 a.m., July 16, 1969, I heard the Apollo launch on a radio at the newspaper where I was a reporter and photographer, the Beachcomber, based in Selbyville, Del.

I felt a great deal of time had passed since President John F. Kennedy announced, during a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

In retrospect, a little more than eight years was a short period indeed to develop and build the rockets, Lunar Excursion Module and launch facilities; to experiment with space walks and the rendezvous necessary for the project; to come up with the gigantic infrastructure of contractors and subcontractors, of communications and logistics, and to carry out the billions of other tasks that had to be performed.

Those who weren’t around yet probably do not realize the importance of this quotation from Kennedy’s special message to Congress, “But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon — if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.” I certainly felt that spirit, that we should fully support the amazing effort.

The Beachcomber didn’t cover space news. Our free tabloid prowled the summer resorts of Maryland and southern Delaware. We were into tide tables for fishermen, light features, pictures of bathing beauties. For example, a photo of mine for the issue we were working on at the time of the liftoff shows a young woman, wearing what now would be considered a relatively modest bikini, stretched out on a beach blanket. My caption was “SUNLIGHT IS for turning brown in.” We thought it was sophisticated to capitalize a caption’s first couple of words.

Among the articles I was writing for that issue was a feature profiling the portrait artists of Ocean City, Md. They sold sketches ranging from $1.50 for a caricature to $9.50 for a pastel. The article ended with:

“We asked Linn what she liked least about the job.

“Linn: ‘Reporters.'”

But while the Beachcomber didn’t care about space, I followed the Apollo 11 events eagerly. Here is a partial transcript of my journal entries for the day before and the day of the liftoff (notes not related to moon exploration are omitted):

July 15, 1969
My thoughts tonight — Christmas Eve [meaning the evening before the launch] — are sad. I am alone and I am sad that these seconds which are ticking out can never come again. The vulnerability of time.

I went outside to watch the stars. I am too sad to write. . . .

July 16, 1969
They’re on their way. This is wonderful. Nobody but the Russians knows for sure just who are on their way. Tom [my younger brother] said today he thinks the unmanned Russian probe has a man in it.

If I were the chief man in the Kremlin, I’d see to it that some sort of last-ditch attempt [was made] to beat the Americans to a manned moon landing.

Although I too doubt the Russians have the capability to do it. As far as I know they’ve never even really soft-landed anything on the moon; their landers have hit the moon like a golf ball hitting the green.

It is wonderful that we’re on the way. . . .

I had to listen to the launch and the transmissions inside on Paul’s radio. I realized two minutes before liftoff what was about to happen and got Paul to turn on his radio in time for all the cool people on the staff — except Mike, who was [in] the darkroom, and Judy who didn’t listen — to listen to the blastoff.

I felt so happy and triumphant. It has been so many years.

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