Sonoma County residents share tales, souvenirs from Apollo 11 moon landing
For 22 hours 50 years ago the entire planet shared a singular moment of triumph. National borders temporarily fell and divisions faded when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed at Tranquility Base, becoming the first Earthlings to visit the moon. It was 4:17 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969.
When Armstrong emerged 6 hours and 39 minutes later from the Lunar Landing Module and placed the first human footprint into moon dust, he united not just the nation but the species with the unforgettable words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“We came in peace for all mankind,” Armstrong and Aldrin read from a plaque they left behind, along with a 1½-inch silicon disk containing miniaturized goodwill messages from 73 countries.
More than 500 million people around the world watched — 14% of the Earth’s population at the time.
Soviet Eastern bloc countries were shut out, as well as places too remote to pick up broadcast signals and who didn’t have fledgling cable service.
Many tuned in by scratchy radio. In the days before live streaming, DVRs and social media, and with household VCRs more than a decade into the future, you had to meet your appointment with the TV or miss it. Radio became a fallback.
Nancy Rogers of Petaluma remembers her family was camping that day, far from any television. So they all piled into their Chevy station wagon while her father fiddled with the car radio dial praying to pick up a signal.
“Then by some miracle of the airwaves in remote Glacier National Park, we listened to a staticky live broadcast of the descent and then the landing with only our imaginations to create the visuals as the astronauts landed, and then stepped from the lunar module onto the surface of the Moon,” the Petaluma woman recalled.
It would be years before she was able to see the momentous moon walk on video.
For all but those with a personal role in the historic event, the moon landing was watched in front of an early TV screen filled with tubes and likely dependent on rabbit ears or antennas.
Poor reception and screen “snow” was a common curse and, for most people, images were only black and white. Only a third of American homes had color TV in 1969.
And yet, however dark and flickering the image or scratchy the sound, the moon landing, in the same way as cataclysmic events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the bombing of the World Trade Towers in 2001, is burned into the memories of anyone old enough to sit there and witness it.
The difference with the moon landing is that it was not shock and horror but wonder and elation.
CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, reporting live, was rendered almost speechless, as was astronaut Wally Schirra sitting beside him contributing commentary. People were overcome.
Looked to the sky
Jane Thomas of Santa Rosa said she her friends were playing Tag the Lightpost when her mother called for them to come inside quickly. “You have to see this,” she said.
“We grudgingly came into the living room. Our parents were huddled in front of our olive green black and white TV,” said Thomas, who was a 9-year-old in Orange County at the time. “There on the screen was a grainy figure in white about to step on the moon. Everyone clapped and cheered when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words. The gravity of this accomplishment was not lost on us ...We went back outside eager to get back to our game, but before we did we looked to the sky. The moon would never look the same to us again.”