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NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago this weekend marked one of the most seminal achievements in human history.
At the momentous hour the mission’s command module pilot, Michael Collins, was orbiting on the far side of the moon and, as he recently related, “couldn’t hear the descent landing.”
But an estimated half a billion people around the globe tuned in on television or radio when his fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down — “the Eagle has landed” — and Armstrong indelibly declared, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he stepped onto the lunar surface.
There was a palpable excitement. “This was probably the first time since Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase where man didn’t know what they were going to find,” says Rep. Mike Turner, a Republican from Ohio.
There was also fear for the safety of the three astronauts. “I remember being afraid for them,” recalled retired Army Gen. Jack Keane. “There was no certainty of success.”
And there was a rare feeling of unity at a very tumultuous time in American politics. “The United States of America was very divided and things seemed kind of out of control,” says Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas. “This was an experience that brought everyone together and talk for a long time shifted away from all the problems in the country to all the opportunities in the country.”
POLITICO this week asked Cabinet members, members of Congress, and other bold-faced names where they were on July 20, 1969; what they remember most; and how they were shaped by an accomplishment that many considered next to impossible.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat from Texas and chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology
“I was a registered nurse at the VA hospital in Dallas. Everyone at the VA hospital, it of course being federal, was paying close attention to the Apollo 11 launch. It seemed that every chance people got they were looking outdoors. I remember being with my in-laws at the time. We gathered in their backyard to look up to see if we were going to see a sign of anything. These events inspired me to pass my first piece of legislation in the Texas State House called Broadening Education to Include Women and Minorities, so we could begin to promote diverse participation in the subjects — now known as STEM — that were going to play a vital role in the space race.”
James Morhard, deputy administrator of NASA
“I’m 13, me and my dad and my uncle are at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. … The day of the landing, it’s pouring down rain. The rain is bubbling up under the floor, because my dad put the tent in a low spot on the campground. We’re soaking wet huddled by a fire we built, listening to a transistor radio. The three of us just grouped together trying to listen to what was going on. … I’m a child of Apollo. … We’re going to go to the moon to basically test out and prove out technology so we can go to Mars ... I’ve got three grandchildren. I want my children and grandchildren to be children of Artemis as I’m a child of Apollo. Apollo was a generational achievement, and I want my offspring to feel that achievement.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Republican from West Virginia and member of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
“I was at camp that summer. All the girls got together, and they brought TVs in so we could see the launch and then the subsequent landing. As you can imagine, the TV coverage was a little grainy and difficult to see. But I remember sitting there with another 250 young ladies, and we all screamed in victory when we saw Neil Armstrong take that first step and heard his words. The fact that we landed on the moon — that we had an aspiration to go to the moon, fulfilled it, and were able to do it so quickly — I think that serves as an inspiration. Our next big aspirations are Artemis — the NASA project so that we have a sustainable station going around the moon — and to have a woman on the next landing. I just think it inspires future generations. The next theater of economic development and exploration is in space. We need to grab it and go!”
Jack Keane, retired Army General
“I had just returned from the war in Vietnam, and I was on duty at the Indiantown Gap military reservation [in Pennsylvania] for ROTC camp, providing instruction on how to operate in Vietnam. We watched the landing completely transfixed. There was huge tension. I remember being afraid for them. There was no certainty of success. It was just an extraordinary unifying experience. I don’t remember anything as inspiring. I’ll never forget it.”
Heather Wilson, former secretary of the Air Force and Republican congresswoman from New Mexico
“We were all criss-cross apple sauce on the floor, while sitting in front of a black-and-white Zenith television. I’m a third generation aviator. One of the things that to me was amazing was my grandfather, who was still alive in 1969 — he wasn’t even 70 years old — was born before the invention of the airplane. He started flying shortly after the Wright brothers. He flew airplanes that were made of fabric and wood and had unreliable engines that were lubricated with castor oil. And he lived to see a man walk on the moon. Isn’t that amazing? In the life that I have lived since that moment, there is more computing power in the little box I am holding to my ear right now than all of NASA had to put a man on the moon. That’s amazing. How quickly we have innovated. I can’t think of another field, with the possible exception of medicine, where there was as much innovation and change in the span of a single lifetime.”
William Cohen, former secretary of defense and Republican senator from Maine
“I was on the city council and assistant county attorney. I was listening on the radio at the courthouse. There was excitement and pride. That day represented to me the courage of the American people. It said a lot about our country. It said a lot about what we are missing today — this sense that we are all Americans. That spirit back then was tangible. We don’t have that sense of unity any longer. To me the greater challenge is not going to be whether we get to Mars but whether we save this planet from becoming Mars.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota and candidate for president
“My mom and dad had friends over to watch it and I remember [newscaster] Walter Cronkite and the words as Neil Armstrong took his first step. I also remember the dinner table that night—my mom was always into decorations on big days and for the moon landing she went with a lunar theme, complete with a rocket shaped Jell-O configuration.”
Chris Wallace, anchor of Fox News Sunday
“I was working as an associate producer for CBS News at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz. CBS News had a remote there because the USGS played a big role in the Apollo program. There were serious questions about the surface of the moon and whether it would support the lunar lander. Some said the lander would only sink an inch or two into the surface, while others said it would sink much deeper and possibly jeopardize the [lunar module] taking off and returning to the command module. I was in a room with the scientists. And I was keenly aware their professional standing was at stake. Some of them would have their analyses confirmed, while others would be proven wrong. Outside of Mission Control, I can’t imagine there were many places where the tension was more intense. After the astronauts left the LEM and started taking pictures panning across the lunar surface, I remember one of the scientists took Polaroid photos of the TV screen and then taped them together, creating his own panorama of the area around Eagle. On a historic day, I felt I had one of the best seats in the house.”
Rep. Charlie Crist, former governor of Florida and Democratic member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee
"I was in my home in St. Petersburg, Fla. It was either very late or very early in the morning. I was just in the family room watching the television with my family. It was mind-blowing to see Neil Armstrong hop down the ladder onto the surface of the moon. It was hard to believe that what you were seeing ... was actually occurring. … There’s no question [that it impacted my career.] ... We’re all impacted by our environment and our upbringing and a significant part of my environment and upbringing as a Floridian was to be able to witness first hand the development and success of America’s space program.”
Rick Perry, secretary of Energy
"I was living in Festus, Mo., working as a door-to-door Bible salesman at 19 years old. I watched in wonder on a 19-inch black-and-white TV in my parents’ roadside motel room as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. However, it wasn’t until years later when I became a pilot in the United States Air Force that I fully understood the magnitude of Apollo 11’s technical achievement and how our country’s place in history was forever cemented on that monumental day."
Sen. Jerry Moran, Republican from Kansas and chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies
“I was a sophomore or junior in high school. I fully remember the words that were said when ‘the Eagle has landed.’ I fully remember the words the astronauts said. I remember it was one of those moments in life that was just awe-inspiring. Like, wow, what an amazing thing. I also remember that the country had so many challenges with division, racial issues, riots. The United States of America was very divided and things seemed kind of out of control. … This was an experience that brought everyone together and talk for a long time shifted away from all the problems in the country to all the opportunities in the country. It lasted a lifetime. People who were living at that time still remember the great things this country can do together.”
Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance
“Golly. I grew up on a ranch in California near Lake Tahoe. We all went over to the neighbors’ ranch because they had the biggest TV in the county. I was 8 years old and we were just rapt. It was magical. I thought it was the most amazing technological marvel that could be imagined. That was the launch and we all came back from the landing and as the landing sequence went through no one was breathing in the room. When it finally landed everyone cheered. I’ve never forgotten. Within a year I was in the back of the barn with some 80-year-old dynamite and wrought iron pipe making my own rockets. And here I am today, the rocket guy.”
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Democrat from Colorado and member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee
“I was sitting with my family: my mom, dad, brother and sister … in our living room at home in Colorado watching it on a big Magnavox TV … watching this thing with amazement. I was 16. ...This thing had been building for some time. The program from the early ’60s to actual touchdown on the moon was a nine- or 10-year process with some missteps, but with real progress the whole way and this was kind of the culmination. I just remember all of us sitting there silent, watching it in amazement and with pride. I mostly can see the room, which was just classic ’60s: shag rugs, art deco furniture, big couch, this big old TV. My dad loved to change the tubes in the TV to always keep it going. But here we saw these guys coming down from the lander and stepping onto the surface of the moon. I get goosebumps thinking about it right now.”
Rep. Jim Cooper, Democrat from Tennessee and chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee
“I was at home in Shelbyville, Tenn., watching it on what was probably our black-and-white television and as excited as any young person can be. We had followed the space program through the Mercury capsules. My father was so interested he had taken us down to Florida to Cape Canaveral. We ate breakfast one morning in a Holiday Inn hotel and it seemed to us that astronauts were visiting the hotel or were staying at hotel. There were several eating breakfast, like Alan Shepard and Gordon Cooper. It seemed like John Glenn was there too — all the greats, the immortals, and they were remarkably accessible to the public. These men were genuine heroes … but they seemed like just plain folks. They ate scrambled eggs and toast just like we did.”
Rep. Mike Turner, Republican from Ohio and ranking member of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee
“I was 9. We had a black-and-white television and the entire family was transfixed watching every aspect of the moon landing. Our country held its breath at every stage that Apollo 11 had to go through to get to the moon and get back. From lifting off to orbiting the moon to descending on the moon to redocking and then returning back to Earth, and then the splash landing in the ocean. Every one of those were incredibly tense. This was probably the first time since Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase where man didn’t know what they were going to find.”
John McLaughlin, former deputy and acting director of the CIA
“I knew exactly where I was. I was a couple months back from a tour in Vietnam in the Army and I was going to graduate school. I remember the effect it had on me because of the contentiousness of those times. This was 1969, the height of the Vietnam controversy. People were marching in the streets. It was a moment when I felt and those of us who came back from Vietnam were not treated all that well. It was a moment I felt, ‘Well, thank God we can all still come together on something. All of humanity can celebrate something about America at a moment when Americans’ themselves are divided.”
Sen. Gary Peters, Democrat from Michigan and member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
“I was in France visiting my relatives with my mother. We huddled together with my grandparents around a small black-and-white TV to watch the landing. It was so memorable for me because seeing the landing abroad gave me a perspective into how the rest of the world saw it. I remember it being a uniting moment that brought people from all walks of life together. It also showed to the world what was possible if humankind unleashed their imagination.”