[WATCH] Fifty years from the Apollo 11 mission that took man on the moon

If you believe... they put a man on the moon. KARL AZZOPARDI trawls the Maltese press coverage of the historic moon landing of 1969 and speaks to astronomy veterans Gordon Caruana Dingli and Leonard Ellul Mercer about that fateful day in history

One of mankind’s greatest achievements started on 16 July, 1969. Inside Houston’s Johnson Space Centre, a nervous mission control waited patiently at their consoles. Decades after the development of rocket technology since WW2, and now in a space race against the Soviet Union, the United States of America would be guiding the Apollo 11 rocket and its three-men crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, to a place where no man had stood before.

The excitement of the moment was shared by millions around the world, as what was previously seen as the stuff of dreams, edged closer to becoming reality.

The eight-day mission of the three astronauts got off to a perfect start, as the Saturn 5 rocket to which their space modules were attached, flew into a temporary parking orbit 103 nautical miles above the earth’s surface, allowing the crew to perform a system check aboard the spacecraft.

The astronauts’ venture beyond Earth’s atmospheric borders was marked by an intensive 10-hour-a-day, six-days-a-week training regime, ensuring their physicality was in top shape for the challenges they would be facing.

Newspapers, radio and television stations were transfixed on that day, with coverage on the crew, their families, and everything surrounding the Apollo 11 mission filling newspaper columns around the world. Much like the rest of the world, even Malta was watching.

Second edition: how latest news came to the public before news became a thing of the Internet, 40 years later
Second edition: how latest news came to the public before news became a thing of the Internet, 40 years later

A Times of Malta report on 18 July 1969, featured a whole page of articles on the crew’s hygiene, their menu while in orbit, their instrumentation and even the medical supplies which would be taken into space.

The Apollo spaceship would be orbiting the circumference of the earth for one and a half orbits at 115 miles above the earth’s surface, before entering the third stage of the journey, where the astronauts would be slung at 25,000 miles an hour towards the lunar surface.

The 238,000-mile journey towards the moon was computer guided, leaving the astronauts responsible for only minor alterations to the course the shuttle would be taking and systems check aboard the Apollo.

Then on 21 July, the long-awaited day when man-kind would conquer territory that had previously lain in fiction, arrived.

Malta too waited in anticipation, tuning in to the broadcast on Italian state television RAI to follow attentively the Apollo mission.

The mission involved Armstrong and Aldrin splitting from command module pilot Michael Collins in a lunar module called Eagle, landing the craft on the moon while Collins orbited around them.

Maltese-Australian scientist Anthony Gerada, a communications supervisor, was among 170 scientists, technicians and support staff at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station in Australia, involved in a relay link project between the lunar module and the manned spacecraft of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston, Texas, responsible for ground communications coordination between the Station and Houston.

Gordon Caruana Dingli and Leonard Ellul Mercer
Gordon Caruana Dingli and Leonard Ellul Mercer

Astro-photographer Leonard Ellul Mercer remembers that momentous day. “Everyone was talking about it. To your generation, that day is historic, to us it was something out of a science-fiction novel.”

Back in the day, television sets belonged to the privileged few, with Ellul Mercer recalling how entire families and communities gathered around television sets to see Armstrong stroll across the lunar landscape.

At 8.17 pm GMT, the historic touchdown time of 102 hours, 45 minutes and 42 seconds into the Apollo 11 mission, was released by Mission Control, as ‘the Eagle has landed’ echoed across the globe.

As recalled by Ellul Mercer, the time in Malta when the lunar module landed on the moon was around 4am, prompting newspapers and television programmes alike to release special media issues on the global event.

Splashdown: NASA command centre celebrates the safe arrival of its astronauts back to Earth
Splashdown: NASA command centre celebrates the safe arrival of its astronauts back to Earth

Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface six hours 39 minutes after the Eagle landed, with Buzz Aldrin joining him 19 minutes later.

The Times of Malta at the time released a second edition, with new details on the moon landing including the astronauts’ experience on the lunar surface and the dark conditions Armstrong reported on.

One of the front-page articles reads that Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut accompanying Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon, reporting “a very powdery surface”, while also finding a ‘purple’ rock. “Aldrin reported the rocks were rather slippery and they had to bounce about as they walked around the spacecraft,” the article says.

Buzz Aldrin, photographed by Neil Armstrong.
Buzz Aldrin, photographed by Neil Armstrong.

Statements from leaders of 73 countries around the world on a silicon disc the size of a 50-cent piece, also featured a message from Malta’s Prime Minister at the time, Gorg Borg Olivier. “On this unique and historic occasion, when man first set foot on a planet outside his own, the People of Malta join the rest of the world in saluting the men whose courage and dedication backed by the untiring efforts of scientists and countless collaborators have made possible this new conquest in space and in the same way as Malta has advocated peace below the waters of the world, she fervently prays that peace shall continue to reign in the vastness of space beyond it.”

Even advertisers did not miss out on the buss of the moon landing, with the sewing machine company Singer using the Apollo 11 rocket to state that its machines had sewn the space suits used by the astronauts.

The political motivation behind going to the moon was also not a factor to be downplayed.

“The Russians had already sent Yuri Gagarin into space, and the Americans had to beef up their efforts to ensure their global dominance in scientific innovation,” Ellul Mercer said.

Yet, when the Apollo 11 mission was beginning its decent back to the earth’s atmosphere, the unquenchable thirst for human exploration had already made its way into the papers.

A report on Wednesday 23 July titled ‘Exploring all the planets of the solar system’, stated that the success of the Apollo mission should translate into the exploration of more ambitious ventures. “The Apollo 11’s successful moon landing demonstrated that man now has the ability to explore all the planets of the solar system – and even aim for the stars beyond,” the article read.

While the occupation of Mars seems to be the next frontier, Malta Astronomy Society honorary member Gordon Caruana Dingli, who has followed manned spaceflight since the flight of Apollo 8, seems to think that it may take some time before we make it to the red planet. “I don’t think we have the right technology to make it there yet,” Caruana Dingli said.

He also said that he believes that on a political level, there also is not much will to spend on a Mars expedition. “Obviously, this might all change if we find traces of life on Mars, then the interest will surely pick-up.”

Taking humanity to Mars will most probably require an international effort. “In the same way countries collaborated together to build the international space station, I believe it will need a collective effort to take man to Mars.”

Ellul Mercer on the other hand believes the first step to going to Mars is creating a permanent base on the moon. “I think we should first establish ourselves on the moon, and then start properly considering going to Mars.”

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