In My Words: On July 20, 1969, the earth orbited the moon

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor of Communications Tom Nelson recalls his experience watching the moon landing 50 years. ago. The column was published in The Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Va.

By Tom Nelson

The moon landing is a hot summer topic this July since it is the fiftieth anniversary of the event. Everyone of a certain age has a memory of it and I am among them. There are stories to tell.

Although I was born during the Eisenhower presidency I have no recall of it. Eisenhower was then and is now a face on a page. I was a Kennedy kid.

My first self-awareness of being an American is deeply in communion with those early years of the 1960s when anything and everything seemed possible in the years leading to the moon mission. It is a time in space defined for me as much by John Glenn’s orbit of earth as Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

During that adolescent space age, I was a student in a Roman Catholic grade school with the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist as our teachers. Dressed in their black habits and medieval draping, the Sisters were kind and giving but never-the-less a dour looking lot. But not the day that John Glenn orbited the earth. All was at fever pitch as an American was finally circling our planet. Everyone including the otherwise serious nuns were moved to smile when my classmate Norman announced that “everything was A-OK” with John Glenn’s flight.

Everything was indeed A-OK in outer space and A-OK in America or so it seemed to many of us.

These were the days before the eclipse of American optimism. Woodstock Nation had not yet but would soon arc into the sunny American firmament, casting a long shadow across the country of my early youth.

By 1969 that shadow was well upon us, bringing a dark end to what began as a bright decade. The moon landing that year was a final glint from a hopeful earlier part of the 1960s when John Kennedy smiled at us from the television screen to be replaced in the closing months of the same decade by Charles Manson’s glare.

That same television screen now provided us with black and white transmissions that on July 20th of 1969 brought the moon landing to us as a live event. This broadcast from the moon was as miraculous as the landing itself.

The earth orbited around the moon that day rather than the other way around. We all looked to our televisions and to the sky. I looked from Clearwater Beach on the west coast of Florida as a boy of 16 years. Someone had rigged a TV into a cabana. It was tuned to the dominant newscaster of the time, a man named Walter Cronkite. I watched the unbelievable unfold with the moon above me, white sand beneath me, the Gulf of Mexico behind me and Walter Cronkite in front of me.

It was magnificent. I just do not know how else to describe it. The space ship’s wobbly descent to the lunar surface, the wait, the walk, the American flag that did not wave but did stand stiff for all the world to see. It was simply otherworldly.

And it was.

Then something so strange happened. Something that affected me deeply enough that a half century later I still associate it with the lunar landing.

Reactions to the moon mission were being broadcast from around the world. One live report from New York’s Central Park stopped me cold both then and now. There was a rock concert being performed that afternoon in the park, the concert’s promoter interrupted the band on stage to tell the audience that Americans had landed on the moon. The audience shouted him down. Some booed.

Viet Nam. Nuclear threat. Racial unrest. Multiple assassinations. The list unfurls like the American flag itself. These things that define the 1960s along with the moon landing had taken a collective toll on the American psyche. Success stood in contrast to failure.

As the now nearly forgotten folk musician Barry McGuire sang in an also now nearly forgotten ballad of the time called Eve of Destruction; “Ah, you may leave here, for four days in space. But when you return, it’s the same old place…”.

Such is the stuff that formed the sturm und drang of those times.

Walter Cronkite, the iconic news reporter of whom I spoke earlier, had a catchphrase that he used back in those days to conclude his nightly roundup of events. “That’s the way it is” Cronkite would say, then he would add the day and the date.

And that’s the way it was.


July 20, 1969.

Views expressed in this column are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University.