I only got in on the tail end of PBS’ American Experience’s Part 3 of “Chasing the Moon,” marking the 50th anniversary this month of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was shown July 10 and fortunately, the station known for endless re-runs is not disappointing us.
Part 1, “… the early days of the space race and the struggle to catch up with the Soviet Union,” will be shown again Tuesday, July 16, at 8 p.m. Part 2, “... what it took for the United States to beat the Soviet Union to the moon,” is scheduled for Tuesday, July 23, at 8 p.m. The third and final part, “Experience the triumph of the first moon landing, witnessed by the largest TV audience in history,” will be shown again Tuesday, July 30, at 8 p.m.
The moon landing seems like such a long time ago. I was in journalism school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and we were living in a second-floor apartment in the south end of Madison. The challenge at the time, by going back to college as an adult, was trying to juggle classes, studying, working part time and making sure our two little ones got to see their dad once in a while.
Our black-and-white portable TV wasn’t working on the night of the attempted moon landing, so we woke the kids and shared the event with our downstairs neighbors, the Duffys. I remember the almost giddy enthusiasm of the news anchors at the time. There were also a lot of tense moments when the astronauts were out of radio contact and again, when the lunar module was descending to the surface of the moon. All in fuzzy black and white, but still exciting stuff.
The PBS program reminded me that this tremendous effort was not wholly supported by everyone in this country. It was happening about the same time as the college campus protests against the Vietnam War and the expansion of the war into Cambodia. Some of the protesters viewed the moon project as diverting funds from more worthy down-to-earth causes — and in some respects they were right.
My one souvenir of that college campus unrest — more like
riots — was a gray, used tear gas cannister, about the size of a beer can, I picked up after another effort to contain the student protesters.
What I didn’t remember about the historic event was that the Russians had launched an unmanned mission to the moon at the same time. That was in the middle of the Cold War and seems far removed from the present-day working relationship in the operation of the International Space Station.
Not once in that excellent PBS series was my name mentioned. Sure, they included Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and even rocket genius Wernher von Braun. But not me. They must have forgotten the work done by the space mission pioneers in the late 1950s.
One of those true pioneers was my brother-in-law, Graeme, a math whiz working for Westinghouse. He was under contract to Boeing to work at Patrick Air Force Base near Cape Canaveral on the Bomarc missile. Got all that? So, for the summer of 1958, between college semesters, I lived in Cocoa Beach, Florida, with Graeme and my sister, Mary Lou.
Bird-watching was big at the time. The birds were those early experimental rockets that were usually fired at night. We’d watch the liftoffs from the flat roof of my sister and brother-in-law’s garage. One missile launch was in the daytime — an Atlas rocket that broke apart shortly after takeoff. Maybe that’s why they switched to night launches.
My important but unrecognized contribution was building houses for the military and rocket workers. I figure that without these houses, the workers would have had no place to live and there wouldn’t have been any mission to the moon or anything close to it. The work was in the Capehart Housing Project along Highway A1A and the houses couldn’t be built quick enough. They were so desperate for help that they hired this inexperienced carpenter.
Make sure to see the PBS American Experience programs on the moon landing. They’re well done, and at least in Part 1, there might be a segment on the important role of the homebuilders.
Space race contributor Bill Pritchard, who worked in community journalism for 30 years, writes from Frederick. Reach him at