50 years later, memories of the moon landing reflect a historic achievement during a turbulent time
The year was 1967 and C. Dianne Martin was a 24-year-old junior programmer who had just been assigned to work on IBM’s contract for the Apollo moon mission.
Toiling on a punch-card machine, she hammered out code in Fortran, an early programming language, helping NASA synthesize radar data from across the world that would be used to track Apollo 11 as it blasted into space.
So when the mission was a success, and Neil Armstrong planted his boot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, Martin was thrilled. But she was not celebrating with her colleagues at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. She was on the couch at home, having been forced to leave her job a week earlier because she was expecting a baby.
“I certainly would have loved to be there with the other guys on the observation deck,” Martin said. But “they didn’t want a pregnant lady hanging out in mission control.”
The moon landing 50 years ago was a historic achievement in a turbulent time, and memories of it reflect the complicated emotions of the era.
Millions of Americans marveled at the grainy images of Armstrong descending the ladder of the Apollo 11 lunar module. But down on Earth, they were also fighting over Vietnam and civil rights, and the landing itself was the product of a Cold War space race with the Soviet Union fueled by both countries’ anxieties over nuclear war.
Triumphal headlines about the moonshot ran alongside stories about Senator Edward M. Kennedy driving off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, killing Mary Jo Kopechne.
“I remember being profoundly depressed about the state of the country, and the moonshot was a break from that — but that’s all it was,” said John Gaddis, a professor of military and naval history at Yale, where he teaches courses on the Cold War. He was 28 at the time and recalled watching from his home in Athens, Ohio, where he was distraught about the war in Vietnam.
“It didn’t connect with what was going in the country,” Gaddis said.
At the same time, he said, the moon landing remains one of the most spectacular achievements in human history.
“If you fast-forward 500 or 1,000 years into the future, no one will remember what the Cold War was about, but the moonshot is something that will be remembered,” Gaddis said. “It is timeless — the first man to leave Earth and set foot on another [celestial body], and that is the kind of thing that will never be forgotten.”
For many watching at home, it was a moment of joy – a “massive celebration of American can-do-ism,” said historian Douglas Brinkley in an interview. More than 400,000 Americans worked on the program, which cost $25 billion, or roughly $180 billion in today’s dollars, said Brinkley, who wrote “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.”
Anita Barry, 15 at the time, watched with her family in the den of their home in Towson, Md.
“I remember my father very excited and yelling, ‘We did it! We did it!’ ” said Barry, a retired physician who lives in Hingham and was visiting an exhibit this week about the moonshot at Draper in Cambridge. “He was jumping up and down. It was elation. We were there first.”
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the response was more muted. Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, recalled being on vacation and stopping on the banks of a river in Chernobyl. A KGB officer handed him a small telescope as a bit of a gag since both men knew it was not powerful enough to view Apollo 11 landing on the moon.
“We watched it,” Khrushchev said, “and we saw nothing.”
Only later, on the radio, did he hear confirmation that while the Soviets had won the early stages of the space race — sending the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit — the Americans had been first to the moon.
“It was not American, it was not Soviet, it was a world achievement,” said Khrushchev, a former engineer on the Soviet space program who is 84 and a retired fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. “It was how I felt at the time, and how I view it now.”
For all the wonderment over the moon landing, many Americans remained concerned that the program was a distraction from poverty and inequality at home.
The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who had become president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led a demonstration at the Kennedy Space Center a day before Apollo 11 blasted off.
Speaking to the assembled press corps, Abernathy lauded the heroism of the Apollo astronauts while calling attention to “the inexcusable gulf between America’s technological abilities and our social injustice.”
Such concerns were not foremost in mind for many who worked directly on the program.
William Cullen recalls feeling intense excitement as he watched on one of the televisions that had been set up in the hallways of RCA Aerospace Systems in Burlington, where he worked as a technician on Apollo 11’s radar system.
Beer and wine flowed, and RCA employees, who built the radar that helped the lunar module rendezvous with the command and service module, cheered.
“The thing we felt was pride in achievement,” said Cullen, 78. “It proved the country can pull together for something other than war. And I haven’t seen that since.”