Apollo 11

Apollo 11 patch

(Shenandoah) -- Think of the 1960's, and what comes to mind?

The Vietnam War. Assassinations. Civil rights protests. The generation gap. A world in chaos.

Thank goodness, there was also the space program.

More than 30 years ago, ABC aired a weekly television program called "The Wonder Years," which depicted the life of a 12-year-old boy growing up in the late '60's. It's hard to believe anyone would be nostalgic about that era, given all the turmoil taking place in the world. In previous blogs, this reporter wrote about the year 1968, and the first major news story of memory: the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The second big news story of my early childhood is much more precious: the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In July of 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins took off on an adventure that was REALLY out of this world. This toe-headed 6-year-old living in Fremont, Nebraska took it all in, thanks to television. Oh sure, radio gave extensive coverage to the Apollo 11 mission (I wonder how KMA covered that event back then?). But, it's those images from TV that have stayed with me for 50 years.

Of course, it would have been hard to miss out on that moment in history, considering the three television networks--ABC, CBS and NBC--went all out to cover the climactic moment in America's race to the moon versus the Soviet Union. Through the magic of Youtube, much of the coverage has been unearthed and made available to the public. Watching some of that coverage has brought back some fond memories--which I hope to rekindle with the links provided in this blog!

Memory number one deals with the launch, itself, the morning of July 16th. My recollection is that NBC's "Today Show" lead off that network's coverage, with the legendary Hugh Downs as host. As launch time got closer (8:32 CDT), Downs gave way to other historic figures from early television news. Chet Huntley and Frank McGee were stationed at NBC's space headquarters set up inside Studio 8-H in New York--later the home of "Saturday Night Live." David Brinkley, meanwhile, reported from then-Cape Kennedy.

Even Brinkley was thunderstruck by the moment the mighty Saturn V took off from the Cape, sending the Apollo crew to the moon. "There is really nothing to say about it," said Brinkley. "What can you say about a sight like that?" Brinkley also talked about how spectators in the VIP stand drew silent as the launch neared, and how the astronauts communicated with Mission Control "as matter of fact, unexcited and calm as if they were taxicab drivers saying, 'we're on Maple Street, headed for downtown.'"

Huntley, meanwhile, took a bah-humbug approach to the event, editorializing minutes after launch about how the billions of dollars spent on the moon mission should be spent to address problems here on earth.

Viewers turned off by Huntley's wet blanket attitude no doubt were spellbound by Walter Cronkite's giddy enthusiasm toward the moon landing on CBS. Flanked by recently-retired astronaut Wally Schirra, Cronkite gave a factual, yet joyful tone to CBS' launch coverage--and fully grasped the history surrounding the Apollo 11 flight.

TV history indicates very few sets were tuned to ABC's coverage--which is too bad, as anchorman Frank Reynolds and science editor Jules Bergman took a backseat to nobody in terms of quality coverage. Bergman, especially, shined with his detailed reporting of Apollo 11 and other events in the U.S. space program. 

No matter what network I was watching that morning, I was transfixed by the coverage--including the countdown clocks superimposed on the screen, and that cool animation all the networks used when the Apollo spacecraft disappeared from sight of the long-range TV cameras about five minutes or so after launch (if fact,it was more interesting than some of the Saturday morning cartoons!).

July 20th, 1969--the day of the moon landing, itself--was spent with my three older brothers at my grandparent's house in Omaha, since my dad was pitching at a softball tournament in Uehling, Nebraska that evening. Highlights of that day are now part of TV--if not world--history. And, Cronkite once again stood out on CBS. Just like 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated, Cronkite was once again a rock behind the anchor desk as the lunar module Eagle neared the lunar surface. Amazingly, he found himself at a loss for words when the Eagle landed at 3:17 p.m. CDT--thus cementing his place as a TV icon. 

"Wally, say something--I'm speechless," said an emotional Cronkite shortly after the landing.

One interesting fact: CBS actually beat Apollo 11 to the moon by about 30 days. Since the network's animation was timed to NASA's original landing schedule, it inaccurately showed the Eagle touching down while Armstrong was actually hovering over the moon, looking for a landing site after the LEM's computer was directing the spacecraft into field with craters and boulders. Remember, alarms sounding from computer malfunctions almost aborted the landing.

If memory serves me correct, my brother and I probably watched the moonwalk on NBC. It wasn't because that network's coverage stood out--though Frank McGee was one of my early news TV news heroes. I was fascinated that Gulf Oil sponsored the network's space coverage--complete with logos prominently placed on the anchor desks. I'll bet there's more than one person my age out there who remembers NBC's Gulf Oil outro ending their coverage, not to mention a great commercial spot featuring a song by the Clancy Brothers.

Hey, you don't get THIS stuff on "The Double X Factor!"

One other note: more than six hours passed between the actual moon landing and the moon walk, which took place just between 10 p.m. CDT. So, the networks found a variety of ways to fill airtime, including poetry and dramatic readings based on space travel, panel discussions about the future of space travel, discussions on old science fiction movies, such as "Flash Gordon," for example. ABC even commissioned jazz great Duke Ellington to make his singing debut with a song called "Moon Maiden."  (Imagine if the moon landing took place in today's era? We'd probably be stuck with performances from Bruno Mars or Beyonce'!)

Networks aside, it's the pictures from that summer night that remain emblazoned in my mind--the ghostly images of Armstrong and Aldrin, live from the Sea of Tranquility. Who among us alive that particular night didn't have a lump in their throats when Armstrong made his "one small step for man--one giant leap for mankind?"

Of course, the Apollo 11 journey is just one of my early space memories. Fortunately, my mom and dad stoked My fascination with the space program by purchasing a set of records entitled, "To The Moon." Produced by Time-Life, the record set detailed the complete history of spaceflight up until Apollo 11, narrated by Sorrell Booke--who later played Boss Hogg on "The Dukes of Hazard." Not only did I constantly play the records, I wore out the silver book with classic space photos that accompanied the set.

While Apollo 11 was a happy childhood memory, perhaps the saddest was when the U.S. government in its infinite wisdom (?) decided to stop the moon program. I plan on sharing my thoughts on that decision, and about the need to return to the moon in a future blog.

For now, let's just say thanks to astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, and for television for leaving lasting memories of a great adventure--and putting the "wonder" in "The Wonder Years."

Mike Peterson is a senior news anchor/reporter with KMA News. The opinions expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of this station, its management or its ownership.