Memories of the moon shot

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As a youngster just 17 days shy of my fourth birthday, there were many more things that captivated my interest than the news my mother kept watching on television.

I didn’t understand why she had to have the TV turned to the news all day. There were other shows I wanted to watch. More importantly, there were other toys I wanted to play with and two younger brothers, ages 2 and 1, to hang out with.

As the day faded to evening that Sunday, July 20, 1969, time must have frozen for everyone but us three overly-active little boys in Niwot, Colo. The significance of the day wouldn’t dawn on me until decades later but the memory, although a little fuzzy after 50 years, is the most indelible of my early childhood.

Even though the hour was late, Mom let me stay up. Dad worked the night shift doing maintenance at IBM, so he wasn’t home. I knew something special was about to happen on TV but since it wasn’t a cartoon or “Batman” I figured it had nothing to do with me.

I was playing down the hall when Mom called me to her in the living room.

“Come watch, men are about to walk on the moon!”

She sat me down in her lap, but I wasn’t interested in watching the news. It was boring. Besides, what was the big deal about the moon anyway?

“No, you don’t understand,” Mom said. “Men have never set foot on the moon before. This is the first time.”

That didn’t make any sense to me.

“You mean we went past the moon and didn’t stop there first?” I asked.

Perplexed, Mom asked what I meant.

“You know, the Enterprise with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. They’re way out there, way past the moon.”

“Oh, that’s ‘Star Trek,’ that’s not real; this is real,” she said.

“What do you mean it’s not real? They’re on TV just like this. They’re way out in outer space,” I said.

“Men have never been past the moon,” she said. “‘Star Trek’ is make-believe. It’s just a TV show. This is real and it’s happening now.”

I remember sitting in her lap while she tried her best to explain to me what was happening on TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ventured out upon the moon. I recall being incredibly disappointed learning that “Star Trek” was only make-believe. Something told me I wasn’t going to like the news about “Batman” either, but I wasn’t about to bring that up now.

My next space-related memories are those of my mother again being glued to the TV and radio while the Apollo 13 drama played out nearly a year later. I remember being confused because at first the astronauts didn’t have enough air, and then they did. I couldn’t understand how we got enough air to them in outer space, but somehow we managed. I also didn’t understand why they were not going to go ahead and land on the moon now that they had enough air. It seemed stupid to go all that way and not land.

Fast-forward about 30 years and I’m a reporter working for my hometown newspaper, the Longmont (Colo.) Daily Times-Call. My friend Travis and I are huge space nuts and we took advantage of every opportunity to report on space-related stuff. That included making annual treks to Colorado Springs to cover the National Space Symposium. Twice we got to meet Buzz Aldrin there and one time he granted us a 90-minute interview. On that same occasion he was there to honor Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, who received the Gen. James E. Hill lifetime achievement award.

There were a lot of astronauts and industry notables there, including legendary flight director Gene Kranz. At one point I walked out into the courtyard to make a phone call and the three of them were there reminiscing. I tried to nonchalantly get close enough to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

Later, before the ceremony began, I saw Kranz pacing nervously in the back of the room. He was there to introduce Lovell. I walked up to say hi and shake his hand. He asked me if I wanted him to sign anything. The only thing I had on me was my press credential, so I handed it to him and he signed it.

Since that time I’ve met and interviewed scores of astronauts. Aside from Aldrin, one of the most memorable came just a couple years ago at Space Center Houston when I interviewed Harrison “Jack” Schmidt in front of his Apollo 17 command module that is displayed there. I’ve also had the honor to befriend Apollo-Soyuz Test Project astronaut Vance Brand, who was born and raised in Longmont. I had a long talk with him while sitting on the base of the sign that bears his name at Longmont’s municipal airport.

I’d love to tell you more about that, but this is my memory of Apollo 11 and the first landing on the moon 50 years ago. To help mark the milestone I went back to Space Center Houston two weeks ago and did the tour of the restored Apollo Mission Control Center. It’s impressive and I encourage everyone with an interest to go see it. The detail and functionality are incredible! It looks just like it did 50 years ago when my in-laws worked there.

In the meantime, I hope that the goal of going back to the moon by 2024 comes true so that my children will have historic space travel memories that they can share someday with their children and grandchildren. And yes, they already know the truth about Batman.

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