Remembering Walter Cronkite’s words on the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing

Think back, if you remember the day July 20, 1969. Or imagine, if you weren’t born yet. It is a Sunday evening in the middle of a sultry summer. Television screens are aglow with live coverage of the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are about to step onto an alien surface, never quite sure if they’ll make it home. An untold number of engineers and technicians are working behind the scenes to beam their live pictures from the moon back to Earth. Anchors like Walter Cronkite are narrating every step. And the family members of the astronauts are watching Cronkite to see what’s about to happen.

Saturday is the 50th anniversary. This milestone has been on my mind all year because Apollo represents what we were. What we are. Hopefully what we could be again.

These days television seems to divide us. But on July 20, 1969 TV united us.

Armstrong’s first step was at 10:56:20 pm ET. “It took place 238,000 miles out in space, yet it was shared by hundreds of millions of people on earth,” said Richard Salant, the president of CBS News at the time. “The step on the moon was an awesome achievement; so was its reporting on television because it emphasized television’s extraordinary ability to unify a disparate world through communicating with so many people, in so many places, and thus providing them with a common — and an extraordinarily satisfying –experience.”

Salant’s reflections were published in a book that CBS released in 1970. The book has been lost to history, but I procured an old copy. Salant, writing on behalf of CBS, wrote that Apollo 11 “ranks as the single most satisfying effort in our collective experience as journalists. All too often, we are forced to report man’s shortcomings. In this instance, from the moment of blast-off to the moment of splashdown we were continually conscious of being involved in one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.”

“We went to the moon on television.”

That’s the lead on this wonderful new column by LA Times critic Robert Lloyd. Television rallied support for NASA, TV newsmen educated Americans about space, and the space program provided a bounty of dramatic programming for the broadcast networks.

“Television pictures afforded the audience the virtual sensibility of being there with Armstrong,” James R. Hansen wrote in his Armstrong biography “First Man.” Without the pictures, “the human experience of the First Man’s first step” would have been “very different.

Did you know?

According to Hansen’s biography, Armstrong “fully intended” to say “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

“I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable,” he told Hansen, suggesting that “a” could be added to the quote in parentheses…

Cronkite’s sign-off

This is how Cronkite signed off on July 24, after four hours covering the splashdown of the astronauts:

“Well, man’s dream and a nation’s pledge have now been fulfilled. The lunar age has begun. And with it, mankind’s march outward into that endless sky from this small planet circling an insignificant star in a minor solar system on the fringe of a seemingly infinite universe. The path ahead will be long; it’s going to be arduous; it’s going to be pretty doggone costly. We may hope, but we should not believe, in the excitement of today, that the next trip or the ones to follow are going to be particularly easy. But we have begun with ‘a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind,’ in Armstrong’s unforgettable words.

“In these eight days of the Apollo 11 mission the world was witness to not only the triumph of technology, but to the strength of man’s resolve and the persistence of his imagination. Through all times the moon has endured out there, pale and distant, determining the tides and tugging at the heart, a symbol, a beacon, a goal. Now man has prevailed. He’s landed on the moon, he’s stabbed into its crust; he’s stolen some of its soil to bring back in a tiny treasure ship to perhaps unlock some of its secrets.

“The date’s now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as man survives — July 20, 1969 — the day a man reached and walked on the moon. The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are the best of us, and they’ve led us further and higher than we ever imagined we were likely to go.”

What to watch, hear, read for the anniversary

— CNN’s “Apollo 11” film relies entirely on the archival footage. It is truly extraordinary. It is airing at 9 pm and again at 11 pm ET on Saturday… don’t miss it…

— For a deeper dive, check out my five-part podcast, “Apollo 11: Beyond the Moon,” which is all about the film, the mission, and the future of space travel. Episode two features Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins…

— CBSN says it will stream CBS “archival footage of the moon landing and moon walk” starting at 3:35pm…

— NASA TV will also be replaying the original footage on Saturday. Here are the details…

— I agree with WaPo TV critic Hank Stuever: “What’s better than a TV shot of Apollo 11? The looks on the faces back home.

— Did you know? Tracking facilities in Australia played a key role in getting “the TV signals back from the Apollo 11 moonwalk.”

— NBC’s Lester Holt reflects on watching the moon landing as a 10-year-old: “It may have been the moment that awakened the journalist in me…”

— The NYT recommends 11 movies for the Apollo 11 anniversary…

— This week on The New Yorker Radio Hour: How does the moon-landing-hoax conspiracy theory continue to thrive? Plus, watching the moon landing in real time…

— Al Tompkins has a big picture look at “what the live broadcast of the moon landing meant to America” at the time…

— And Joshua Benton looks back at the NYT’s MEN WALK ON MOON front page and the poet who was chosen to “sum up the goggling achievement for posterity…”

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