Summer of '69
A Small Step Toward Unity
As the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon, a nation torn by unrest stopped to watch.
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; Page B01
Abe Liss and his brother, Ben, had already rented out more than a thousand sets, but the phone at Beacon Television Rental, their store on Seventh Street NW, continued to ring.
Everybody, it seemed, wanted one as soon as possible -- embassies, government office buildings, restaurants and bars. Two hundred and fifty thousand miles away, American astronauts were about to become the first people to land on the moon, and Washington, like the rest of the country, was riveted by the images on the screen.
"As a child, you'd hear that rhyme, 'Hi-diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon,' " Abe Liss, 86, said recently. "Well, I never thought I'd live to see something like that. I was excited about it, too."
The 1969 moon landing, which occurred 35 years ago today, was a peak moment for technological achievement, Cold War one-upmanship and national pride. For a country torn by the Vietnam War and civil unrest, it was a chance, if only a brief one, to unite in wonder as mission commander Neil Armstrong touched his foot to the lunar surface and said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Washington had a huge stake in the adventure. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, alarmed by the Soviet Union's strides in the space race, vowed in his famous speech to Congress that the United States would get men on the moon and back home safely by the decade's end. Lawmakers debated the billions of dollars needed for the missions, an estimated $20 billion for the Apollo program alone. At Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, systems engineers such as Henry Iuliano were in charge of the tracking network, while colleagues at NASA's mission control in Houston communicated with the astronauts.
"For me, personally, the hair on the nape of my neck stood up, to realize where they were, on a foreign planet, so to speak," said Iuliano, 75, who was at his console during the lunar landing. "It was a 5,000-year-old dream, and nobody knew what was going to happen."
It also was a year after riots had convulsed the city, following the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And as Armstrong and crewmates Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins approached the moon, feelings at home were mixed.
"It was exciting, but yet there was sort of a resentment," said Korea Strowder, 84, a longtime community activist in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast Washington. "You know, you're thinking about all this money going up in space, and so many issues have not been resolved here on earth."
Back then, she said, her family and neighbors were too busy trying to make a living to feel that the moon landing had much to do with them. Racial discrimination was overt, she said, recalling that because her husband, Joseph, was black, he was denied promotions he deserved. Her friends had similar stories of struggle.
And yet the Strowders gathered around the TV, too, whenever they could.
"We did watch it," she said. "It was the biggest thing. I was just a little bit fearful. Would this person be able to get back in the spacecraft? That was somebody's husband, somebody's child. Would they be able to get back safely to earth?"
Apollo 11, culminating a series of missions that brought the United States ever closer to the moon, was launched from Cape Kennedy on the morning of July 16. Four days later, at 4:18 p.m. Eastern time, the Eagle lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the smooth plains of the Sea of Tranquility.
"Everybody felt the same way -- there was a roar," Iuliano said. "There was a visitors area in back [at Goddard] with inch-thick glass, and they yelled so loud, even though we had earphones on, it felt like they were screaming in our ears. Then the cigars came out -- that was a tradition."
At 10:56 Eastern time that night, Armstrong took the next momentous step -- climbing down the Eagle ladder and walking on the moon.
Because TV sets were not as common in public places as they are now, Abe Liss said, many people turned to rentals, giving his company one of its biggest business booms ever. Back then, black and white sets were the rule, but it didn't much matter -- the lunar video was mostly gray anyway.
Across the country, youngsters were inspired. Geologist Bob Craddock, whose office at the National Air and Space Museum today is crammed with model rockets, remembers looking up at the moon as a 7-year-old and almost believing he could see the spacecraft.
Bill Sawchuck, who works for NASA contractors and collects NASA security badges, immediately started plotting to buy a high-power telescope, even though he was 10.
"I'm still an armchair astronaut. I picture myself in orbit," said Sawchuck, 45, a D.C. employee. "The whole beauty of the earth from space -- I've never lost my wonder."
But it was over soon enough. The astronauts returned to earth on July 24, dropping into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
A total of 12 astronauts would walk the moon, ending with the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. The space race that had ignited the '60s was all but finished. Funding became more difficult to wrangle. Space shuttles were the next big thing. And as the years passed, the voices of the doubters, who questioned the value and expense of the Apollo program, grew louder.
"My main view has been, it was a waste of money," said Charles L. Schultze, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who was director of the U.S. Bureau of the Budget under President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1965 to 1967. "Almost anything you can do in space with scientific value you can do with unmanned spacecraft."
But even Schultze admits that he bought a bigger television that summer.
"D.C. was no different than anybody else," he said. "Everybody was sitting and looking. It was great entertainment."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"Nobody knew what was going to happen," says Henry Iuliano, 75, who keeps souvenirs from his time working at Goddard Space Flight Center.
(Cathy Kapulka -- The Washington Post)
Photos: Mission to the Moon