Television allowed all of us to ride along on the Apollo 11 mission
By MARK DAWIDZIAK | The Plain Dealer, Cleveland | Published: July 12, 2019
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Television repeatedly has demonstrated the power to bring us together, but these unifying moments typically happen because of a great national tragedy. It’s usually at times when a shared sense of grief is profound enough to momentarily transcend those differences that threaten to divide us: the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the Challenger disaster in 1986, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
The grand exception among these major news stories is July 20, 1969, the day that Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon. For a brief time, we were united as a people, a nation, a planet. We were united, not in sorrow, but in a grand sense of wonder, triumph and exhilaration.
And television was what allowed us to share the amazing journey, from liftoff to splashdown. Indeed, without television, the entire American space program might not have gotten off the ground. It’s something to consider as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
“The history of U.S. space exploration is deeply connected to television,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University and the author of the recently published “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.” “Unlike in the Soviet Union, where everything was done in secret, NASA had a lot of transparency. Once Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, all of the missions became television extravaganzas.”
In May of 1961, the United States was trying to make up ground on the Soviet Union in the space race. Twenty days after Shepard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy famously told Congress and the American people that we “should commit ourselves to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
“From then on, the whole country watched each mission in breathless fashion and the ratings were massive,” said Brinkley, who grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, and earned his bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University. “It was treated like a Super Bowl: the United States vs. the Soviet Union. Who was going to win? It all was tied to television, and Apollo 11 was the biggest TV moment of all.”
Indeed, it was. An estimated worldwide audience of 550 million watched Armstrong, who was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, make his one giant leap for mankind. From the first seven Mercury astronauts to the Gemini missions to Apollo 11, it had taken just a little more than eight years for America to meet Kennedy’s lofty goal.
“Television was like 100 percent important to getting the American people to sign up for Kennedy’s vision,” said author and TV historian Robert J. Thompson, a professor of communications at Syracuse University. “It was one big television show. It was a big-budget Cold War miniseries with heroes, villains, tragedy, triumph. It had everything.”
The astronauts, of course, were the heroic leading men in this story.
“Everyone was pulling for the astronauts,” Brinkley said. “We also have a long history in this country of honoring our armed forces, and these astronauts were military officers. Ohio’s John Glenn was a Marine. Alan Shepard was a naval officer. They were at the same time pioneers and superstars.”
The Soviets were cast as the bad guys. The colorful cast of supporting players included scientists, engineers, flight directors, politicians and the thousands of team players working at Grumman, Boeing, IBM, North American Aviation, Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft, Goodyear Aerospace, NASA’s Launch Control Center at Cape Canaveral (then Cape Kennedy) in Florida and Mission Control in Houston, Texas.
Tragedy struck on Jan. 27, 1967, when a fire during a launch rehearsal test claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. And the ultimate triumph was provided by the drama of Apollo 11.
“Everyone but the astronauts, including the people at Mission Control, experienced Apollo 11 though a screen of some kind,” Thompson said. “For everyone but them, this was a television event.”
And presiding over it all was CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. No journalist has ever been so identified with the American space program.
“Walter Cronkite had adopted space exploration in the 1950s as his beat,” said Brinkley, whose many books include “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America” and the 2012 biography “Cronkite.” “All of the networks covered the notion that this would be the decade when we’d break the shackles of planet Earth and walk on another celestial body, but Cronkite led the way.”
Cronkite’s dedication to space coverage was so genuine and strong, he was nicknamed “the eighth Mercury astronaut.” His identification with space coverage and his standing as “the most trusted man in America” inspired humorist Art Buchwald to write a column about watching CBS during an Apollo launch.
Buchwald wrote that he and his wife became convinced that Cronkite really was in charge, making the decisions. When Cronkite looked concerned, they wondered if “Walter” was about to scrub the mission. Then they realized everything was a go because “Walter” looked satisfied.
“I remember once, when the astronauts were in trouble and I was worried, my wife said, ‘Don't worry: Walter will solve the problem,’ ” Buchwald said in the early 1980s. “Twenty minutes later, Walter came back on the air. . . and fixed it.”
“You did almost get the idea that Walter was as much in control of the event as the people at Mission Control,” Thompson said. “But along with that sense of authority he brought to the coverage, there was a sense of giddiness.”
Three major news stories define Cronkite’s work at CBS in the 1960s. First was the Kennedy assassination, with Cronkite famously getting choked up and brushing away a tear when announcing that the president had died. The second was his reporting from Vietnam, culminating in a February 1968 editorial that described the conflict as “mired in stalemate.” And then there was his “iron man” coverage of Apollo 11.
“But unlike the Kennedy assassination and his reporting from Vietnam, this was a happy and triumphant occasion for Walter and all of us,” Thomson said. “Instead of Walter taking off his glasses and brushing away a tear, he was as giddy as a school child with her first party dress. He was positively enchanted. It certainly was the only time Walter Cronkite could use the phrase hot diggity dog on more than one occasion.”
Perhaps, but nobody doubted the enthusiasm was every bit as sincere as the emotion over the loss of a president on Nov. 22, 1963.
“It wasn’t playacting or posturing when Cronkite was so giddy or emotional during those long hours of covering Apollo 11,” Brinkley said. “He was a dedicated space nerd. It was a Herculean effort as a TV anchor, and he owned the coverage. It was a television drama, and Cronkite was presenting it to us.”
Although there were a few dissenting American voices in 1969, network coverage didn’t give them much prominence throughout the Apollo 11 mission.
Thompson has noted “a bit of a drumbeat in a little bit of the coverage.” These were the voices of what he calls “the hard-core counter-culture people,” and they were asking, “How can we be spending this much money and committing this many resources to send three people to the moon when right here on this planet we have so many problems with inequality and poverty and civil rights?”
But these voices were drowned out by a constant chorus of joyful cheering. And understandably so.
“Even more important than the absolutely incredible engineering feat it was to get to the moon, it really represented one of the last pure forms of national optimism,” Thompson said.
For Brinkley, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 should be “a celebration of American can-do-ism.”
“The moon suddenly was on our doorstep,” he said. “It cost the American people $25 billion, which is $180 billion in today’s money, but it was worth it because of the spinoff technology we got it and the pride we got in the American spirit. It was sold as a collective American endeavor, and it is a reminder of what America can do when we unite behind a cause.”
Brinkley was 8 when Apollo 11 reached the moon and Armstrong became his hero. He says that getting to interview and know Armstrong “remains one of my life’s big thrills.”
“This was my favorite book to write,” Brinkley said of “American Moonshot. “At a time of great partisan hatred for each other, it was really refreshing to recall an epic event where the country pulled together as one. And it does make one hope that we can have another.”
The historian stresses that we’re still in the embryonic stage of space exploration, so the importance of Apollo 11 may be magnified by future generations.
“Fifty years is an eye blink in history,” Brinkley said. “Some day we may look at Apollo 11 as a great defining moment for history, just as we divide history into pre-Christopher Columbus and post-Columbus, it might be pre-Armstrong and post-Armstrong 500 years from now. But right now we can pause and reflect on one of the most meaningful events in human history.”
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