When Neil Armstrong took that first ‘small step’ on to the Moon, at 10.56 pm Eastern Standard Time on 20 July 1969, it was already 21 July in many other parts of the world. It didn’t matter: day or night, East or West, people all over followed the mission’s progress over TV or radio. As Armstrong climbed down the lunar module’s ladder, more than 750 million people back on Earth had collectively held their breath.
This event holds special significance for me personally. It’s the earliest childhood memory that I have which can be pinned down to a specific date. And what a date!
I was a little over three years old at the time (as I like to put it, I’m the same age as Star Trek!). The year 1969 was already the most eventful yet in my (very short) life: in April that year, a younger sister was born. And at the beginning of July, I started in pre-school. I should think that at least the ‘headlines’ of such key events would be imprinted in my (usually good and sharp) memory. But those events are buried deep beneath the sediments of memory, and I have to turn to secondary (parental) sources to get any details.
What I do remember, to this day, is the excitement over the first Moon landing. My father was listening to the live radio broadcast on Voice of America. Sri Lanka had no television broadcasts then (that medium would arrive only 10 years later), so the only choice was to tune in to radio and imagine the pictures….or wait for the next day’s newspapers.
The crackling shortwave transmission came in loud and (mostly) clear through the large radiogram that sat in a prominent corner of our spacious living room. At over three feet in height, and encased in neatly polished wood, the instrument must have appeared formidable to little me. That was our solitary window to the outside world.Although I realised something pretty important was happening, I didn’t understand what the commentary said. English was still an alien language – heck, at that tender age, I was still picking my mother tongue! But the inquisitive brat that I was, I asked my father to give me occasional summaries of what was going on. His school teacher experience must have helped him to distill the essence for me.
After all these years, I can’t remember too many details. But the highlights linger on, if only as distant headlines. Neil Armstrong’s one small step was taken. Neil and Buzz hopped around like kangaroos, enjoying the lower lunar gravity. They planted the American flag and set up scientific instruments. Then collected lunar soil samples. They often talked as they worked. Mission Control closely followed their every move…as did the whole world, a quarter of a million miles away.
Then it was time to head back. I would later find out that leaving the Moon after two and a half hours of exploration was a particularly tensed moment in the mission. The astronauts had one chance to rejoin the ‘mother ship’ orbiting the Moon. If their lunar module failed to take off, they’d be marooned on the Moon — with absolutely no hope of a rescue.
Having spent just about 1,000 days on Earth myself, I had no clue about any of these dangers. But the one ‘tough’ question I still remember asking my father is: “What could happen if the astronauts can’t return?”
I’m not sure what answer, if any, he gave me. His background was in history and languages, not science. But that sure was an indication that I had the knack for asking difficult, sometimes irritating, questions.
Forty years on, I still haven’t stopped.
Popular Mechanics July 2009 issue has some soundbites from the VOA’s Apollo 11 broadcast