It changed lives. It changed Cortland. It changed a world. Maybe you were at a party with friends, or maybe clustered with your family around the black-and-white, 19-inch TV with rabbit ears. Maybe you were sick as a dog and laid out on the parents’ fold-out couch.
But if you were there, you remember. Even if you weren’t, it changed your life.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Somewhere between 500 and 650 million people tuned in — about one person in six across the Earth — to see Neil Armstrong become the first person in history to set foot on land that wasn’t Earth.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the moon July 20, 1969.
It was one of those moments in history that affect not only you, but the generations following you. But this one was different. Unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the Challenger explosion of 1986, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — this one was uplifting.
The Apollo landing on July 20, 1969 — and the entire manned space program — captured the imagination and sent an entire world looking to the future with no small amount of hope.
Shenandoah Briere/contributing photographer
Richard Berg, of Virgil, shows the lunar maps he helped create as an astronomer working with NASA during a summer job in the 1960s. The maps he worked on helped NASA pick landing sites, including the site near Mare Tranquilitatis where Apollo 11 landed.
Richard Berg of Virgil leaned over the table and pointed to a spot on a photo: Sabine C, the crater near which Apollo 11 landed in 1969.
Another photo showed a person taking strips of images from one of the many lunar orbiter satellites in space and pasting them together to make a large scale map of just a portion of the moon — the front facing quarter of the moon actually.
Berg is an astronomer, and while making his way through college in the late 1960s, he worked a summer job at the United States Air Force Aeronautical Chart and Information Center in St. Louis. It was the center NASA worked with to create maps of the moon in anticipation of the Apollo missions.
“I had a very small role in a very large project,” he said. “I was trying to help them produce these maps and charts. They would come and ask questions about the moon, about space. They were all very smart people.”
But being a part of such a large project was exciting.
“There was a real joy getting up in the morning and going to work knowing you had these projects to work on,” he said.
So when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, it was relieving.
Berg and his wife, who were just married at the time, spent that Sunday watching as Neil Armstrong and crew landed on the moon safely and took the first steps.
“People were of course thrilled,” he said.
Berg said that the celebration this year won’t be the same as it was 50 years ago. During that era Berg said President John Kennedy helped set the tone that ignited unity among Americans.
“It was a goal everybody embraced,” he said.” I’m not sure that kind of environment exists anymore, but it doesn’t mean it can’t inspire kids to get into science or interested in space.”
Eyes on the stars
Photo provided by Luke Keller
Luke Keller, of Freeville, was inspired by the Apollo missions to get degrees in science and develop a lens for the Kuiper Airborne Observatory telescope. His start came as a boy wearing an astronaut suit and playing in a plywood command module his father built.
Luke Keller of Freeville was 2 years old living in a small village on the Yukon River in Alaska when Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface. If he had been older, he still would not have seen the historic event, as he had no television.
But Keller saw a news reel of the landing at his local school when he was 4 and it changed his life.
“It made a huge impression on me and I wanted to be an astronaut until I was in high school,” Keller said. “When I was 4 years old, I knew all the names of the rocket stages and modules and my Dad built me a command module out of plywood that I could sit in lying on my back, just like the Apollo flight crews, while wearing my astronaut suit.”
While in high school, Keller considered becoming a veterinarian, but circumstances turned his attention back to space. While visiting his uncle in Georgia, his uncle drove him four hours to Huntsville, Alabama, where the rockets for space flights were developed. He bought a book on astronomy that helped focus his life’s direction.
“I realized I wanted to study space, but not as an astronaut,” Keller said.
He attended the University of Arizona, where he obtained his bachelor of science in physics, a course he enjoyed in high school, and also studied astronomy. He later received his master’s degree and PhD in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin.
A job as a post doctorate researcher at Cornell University brought him to the greater Cortland area and he is now a professor in the Ithaca College Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Keller helped develop a lens for a Kuiper Airborne Observatory telescope carried in a 747 jetliner and based at the Armstrong Flight Research Center, a project that had him working with NASA employees for more than 10 years, ending in 2015. He went on 13 flights, climbing to an altitude of about 41,000 feet, as part of the project.
His attention is in space, even if his body isn’t.
“I never met an astronaut,” the 52-year-old said with a smile.
A friend in high places
Kathryn Kramer sat in her living room with her family in San Antonio, watching the TV. Friends from around the neighborhood stopped in. It was a party.
But the astronaut they watched take that first step on the moon wasn’t an icon. He wasn’t a symbol of American excellence, or an object to admire. Neil Armstrong was their friend.
“He was such a good, dear friend of my father. That made it interesting,” Kramer said.
“He came to the neighborhood and signed autographs for all the kids,” said Kramer, who was 13 on that day in 1969. “He was a big, huge hero.”
But Armstrong didn’t act like it.
The man Kramer knew as daddy’s friend and fellow pilot — dating back to their Navy days, the Korean War and squadron VF-51 — was just a nice guy. A bit soft-spoken. And he was as interested in the world and arts and everything beyond flying, engineering and the very skills that helped bring him to the Apollo program.
“There’s an intellectual side to him,” Kramer said. “He was thoughtful. He was interested in us and hanging out with the neighborhood kids.”
She keeps her father’s scrapbook of his Navy days, and a collection of notes and emails the men traded over the decades. And she has a photo of them together in 2010. That’s the Armstrong she knows.
If Armstrong didn’t inspire Kramer to pursue science or engineering or technology — she’s an art history professor at SUNY Cortland — he was an example to emulate, nonetheless.
“I think he could be inspirational,” said Kramer, of Cortland. “He could be open to anything and everything. He just expanded and did all kinds of things.”
“He was such a good, good guy.”
‘It’s for the entire world’
Gordon Valentine of Cortland was 22 when he watched Apollo 11 land on the moon.
He remembers it clearly. He had just completed his first year as a history teacher in the Sherburne-Earlville school district. He was with his girlfriend at the time. They watched the broadcast on NBC Nightly News in the living room of her parents’ house on a black and white TV.
While Valentine said he was “very fascinated” when the mission successfully landed on the moon, he also remembers feeling apprehensive. Some today may take the moon landing for granted, but Valentine said at the time many people had a very real fear the landing might not be successful, or that the astronauts “might not come back.”
Prior to the moon landing, he said, the U.S. had fared badly in its space race with the Soviets.
The Soviets had reached several milestones first, and the Apollo program started off with disaster — the death of three crew members in the Apollo 1 mission of 1967. So there was reason to be nervous, Valentine said.
“We were behind the Russians. We were scared,” he said. “So there was that fear.”
On the other hand, there was the exciting optimism that the U.S. might actually succeed this time. That was, after all, what the nation had been promised in 1961.
“I remember President Kennedy saying, ‘We will go to the moon,’” he said. And eight years later, Valentine said, we did exactly that.
“We had done well,” he said. “We beat those guys. There was huge pride in our nation.”
The other thing that struck him about the moon landing was Neil Armstrong’s words upon setting foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong didn’t make the landing about an American landing on the room, said Valentine. Instead, he included the entire human race, and that gesture really impressed him.
“He said we’re doing it for humanity, not just the United States,” Valentine said. “It’s for us. It’s for the entire world.”
Staff reporters Shenandoah Briere and Travis Dunn, City Editor Kevin Conlon and Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.