Al Bruce remembers historic day through words of the NY Times

Fifty years ago this week, The New York Times with its calm methodical grace used this headline to tell the world about one of our species’ great engineering triumphs:

Men Walk On Moon

The story continued in the precise and artfully crafted sentences of long-time Times science writer John Noble Wilford: “Houston, Monday, July 21 — Men have landed and walked on the moon.

“Two Americans, astronauts of Apollo 11, steered their fragile four-legged lunar module safely and smoothly to the historic landing yesterday at 4:17:40 P.M., Eastern daylight time.”

Everyone who was alive during the end of July 1969 remembers where they were at the exact time Neil Armstrong told Houston and the rest of the world “The Eagle has landed.”

The Times captured the excitement and tension of that moment in Houston and with hundreds of millions of people around the planet: “When Maj. Charles M. Duke, the capsule communicator in the control room, radioed to the two astronauts:

"We copy you down, Eagle."

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

"Roger, Tranquility," Major Duke replied. "We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We are breathing again. Thanks a lot."

This writer was visiting his parents in a rural crossroad about 30 miles west of Rochester when the typically unflappable Walter Cronkite removed his eyeglasses, wiped his eyes and acknowledged the excitement he felt. The writer, who was licensed to fly fragile aircraft fellow pilots derisively call “bug smashers,” thought about the excitement in the Democrat and Chronicle where he was a reporter.

In those days, the Associated Press teletype clanged an alert to subscribers that momentous news was being transmitted. No journalist anywhere doubted that men from the Planet Earth walking on the moon would trigger that alarm.

The writer’s wife heard the news about 3,500 miles away and 35,000 feet above the Pacific when the pilot of the aircraft that was taking her to Oahu and a meeting with relatives relayed the news to passengers who applauded and cheered.

The Times, adhering to its motto “All the news that’s fit to print,” described minutiae that subscribers eagerly await daily: “Colonel Aldrin assured Mission Control it was a ‘very smooth touchdown,’ Wilford dutifully reported: “The Eagle came to rest at an angle of only about four and a half degrees. The angle could have been more than 30 degrees without threatening to tip the vehicle over.”

Wilford ended his story with details that help explain why he was a great science reporter and why the Times is such a great newspaper: “This particular landing site was one of five selected by Apollo project officials after analysis of pictures returned by the five Lunar Orbiter unmanned spacecraft.

“All five sites are situated across the lunar equator on the side of the moon always facing earth. Being on the equator reduces the maneuvering for the astronauts to get there. Being on the near side of the moon, of course, makes it possible to communicate with the explorers.”


Al Bruce covers education stories for The Spectator.