A half century since Apollo 11: a personal memoir

I find it incredible to think that this week has marked the fiftieth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 11 – the first landing on the Moon. Half a century: and yet, in many ways, it seems like yesterday.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment – a device to measure the wind from the sun. Public domain, NASA.

I was a kid at the time. Back then space was the place, as Sun Ra once put it. The US space programme, in particular, had huge profile, even in small-town New Zealand where I grew up. The toys in the Cornflakes packets were spaceships, real ones: I remember a Mercury/Atlas and a Lunar Module, particularly. You could get fruit juice in a bottle the shape of a spacesuited astronaut. There was even ‘space cordial’ – Tang, powdered orange juice that, we were told, was the same as drunk by the astronauts in space. We were transfixed by reports of one space event after another. And National Geographic ran amazing full-colour articles documenting the triumphs.

Steps to Apollo – all of which I eagerly followed as a kid. Gemini 7 from Gemini 6, 15 December 1965. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

All of this wrapped my childhood. I researched it all – in part courtesy of material my Dad provided, which he’d got, among other places, from a friend in the US Embassy in Wellington. Dad was fascinated himself, of course – his background was in electronics development, where he’d eventually worked in the UK, before I was born.

I remember the day of the landing and moon-walk, almost as if yesterday. The whole school was buzzing about the moon landing. I went home for lunch. My Mum had got into the spirit of it; she’d made a ‘moon lunch’ which I seem to recall involved cheese. When I got back to school, one of the other kids tried to tell me Neil Armstrong had fallen off the Moon. I suppose they thought it was like a platform above the Earth or something, and naturally you’d come crashing down if you slipped. Who knows?

That afternoon the focus at school, for once, wasn’t on punishments but on waiting for a live radio broadcast of the first moonwalk. And later, at home we saw it on TV. That was a remarkable feat of logistics: New Zealand didn’t have a satellite TV connection at the time. The video was obtained from Sydney, where an RNZAF Canberra flew it across the Tasman at high speed and it was then played into a TV camera. Gimcrack stuff by today’s standards, but we got to see it.

It was an extraordinary day. One of those one remembers, as a kid.

My take on the human meaning of Apollo comes up tomorrow, the actual anniversary of Armstrong’s moonwalk – 20 July 1969 in the US, 21 July in New Zealand. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019


3 thoughts on “A half century since Apollo 11: a personal memoir

  1. The first thing I’d note is that your schooling, based on the entries I’ve read here, must have been simply awful in terms of the atmosphere. Punishment is such a frequent reference, it sounds awful.

    Secondly, I recall this event as well, although as I noted in my blog post about it ( https://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2019/07/july-20-1969-first-moon-landing.html ), I recall it a little inaccurately, as I now realize.

    Still, what a big event it was. It really seemed we, by which I mean humans, had really achieved something.

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    1. Yeah, that primary school was awful. I say this not solely off memory, but because my father kept a file (which I have), including notes of his meetings with the teachers and headmaster over their conduct. They refused to put anything in writing, themselves, which speaks volumes. There’s also correspondence with teachers, including the time one of them sent a group of kids right into my parents’ property to drag me back to school for more punishment, after hours. That resulted in Dad taking very sharp action, but the whole experience was dire.

      The moon landings were just HUGE in every sense. First time in the history of the world that anything from this planet had stepped on another. In – as Apollo discovered from the moon rocks – about 3.6 billion years, or thereabouts. How awesome is that? I think the achievement absolutely transcended the immediate politics of the Cold War that drove it; this was a world thing, historically in every way.

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