“It was as unreal as a B-grade science-fiction movie,” a Seattle Times reporter wrote.
Man took his first step on the moon on this day in 1969.
“There was life on the moon yesterday. Man placed it there and seemed destined now to spread it all through the heavens,” wrote Seattle Times staff reporter William Prochnau, in the following day’s paper. He covered the touchdown from mission control in Houston.
“U.S. Astronauts Open New Era,” read the day’s headline.
“It happened, this first landing of men on the moon, with all the predictability of the computerized clockwork that got them there. Yet it was as unreal as a B-grade science-fiction movie,” Prochnau wrote.
He relayed the famous quote from Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon:
“That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
But Prochnau also chronicled the words of Buzz Aldrin, who stepped second onto the lunar surface:
“And Aldrin’s first words were, ‘Beautiful, beautiful.’ Less well-planned than Armstrong’s well-honed statement for the history books,” Prochnau wrote.
The entire country had been preparing for the landing for days. The endeavor was front-page news for more than a week as the country anxiously followed weather reports and preparation updates.
On July 16, Apollo 11 lifted off.
“The three astronauts of Apollo 11 hurtled toward the moon today, and mankind soared with them into a strange and unknown future,” Prochnau wrote from Cape Kennedy, Fla., where the rocket took off.
Prochnau watched from nearby as the rocket’s booster fired, “devouring fuel at a rate of 30,000 pounds a second.”
He described a tense and then jubilant scene.
“There was a moment of silence before the sound reached the observers, then a whispered ‘Go, baby, go,’ and finally a wild cheer as the rocket cleared the tower and the thunder reached the viewing stands.”
On the third-stage rocket engine that would push the astronauts out of Earth’s orbit, Prochnau wrote:
“It will propel them into their rendezvous with history, cutting the bonds, once and for all, that have tied man to his birthplace.”
“It will sever Mother Earth’s apron strings. Never again can she hold her offspring so tightly and jealously. Man is coming of age.”
President Richard Nixon urged everyone to take a day off so they could watch history be made.
The hoopla continued well after the successful landing. As Apollo 11 coasted back to Earth “stuffed with moon treasure,” the Times noted, “Dance instructors in Houston already are predicting some fancy new steps on the nation’s dance floors as a result of the bouncy ballet-like maneuvering by Armstrong and Aldrin.”
The moonwalk had already been invented, but it wouldn’t be perfected until years later.
Meanwhile, residents of the Pacific Northwest turned on their lights from 9 p.m. to midnight on July 23 as a “welcome-home beacon” for the spacecraft as it sailed back to Earth.
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When the astronauts finally returned to gravity’s clutches July 24, the celebration hit a crescendo.
Once the spacecraft was sprayed with decontaminant and the astronauts given “germ-tight suits,” a helicopter picked up the astronauts and dropped them off on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
“At that moment a huge cheer went up from the usually staid Mission Control room in Houston. The men there began waving American flags and lighting up huge cigars,” Prochnau wrote.
The astronauts were put into a special van (because they were “potential germ-carriers”), in which they were greeted by a Navy band and welcomed home by an emotional President Nixon.
“This has been the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation,” Nixon was quoted as saying.
“The astronauts had reached for the stars, the President said, and had inspired others to do so, too. All men, the politicians and leaders of a troubled world, would try to do better because of the flight of Apollo 11, Nixon said,” Prochnau wrote.
Fear of moon diseases kept the celebration from getting too wild.
“They [the astronauts] are headed now for 21 days of isolation in Houston, a precaution against the remote chance that they have become infected with moon organisms,” wrote Prochnau.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the type of spacecraft employed on the Apollo 11 mission.