Apollo 11 memories: How a sleepy kid almost missed Armstrong’s ‘one small step’

I was 9 years old when Apollo 11 made history. Throughout the 1960s, it was nearly impossible to miss the excitement of America’s program of space exploration.

Not all of it was triumphant. I remember looking at the front page of the New York Daily News in 1967, with the picture of Gus Grissom and the other two astronauts who had burned to death on the launch pad. I also remember being enchanted by hearing about Apollo 8 orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, and their live broadcast reading from the Book of Genesis.

My Catholic elementary school made sure we all saw every liftoff and splashdown in the Apollo program. If it happened on a school day, the teacher would switch on the classroom TV, and we’d get a break from the usual instruction.

But when Apollo 11 lifted off, it was summer. My oldest brother was home from college. He and our dad were sitting in a darkened living room on the night of July 20. The only light was from our big old black-and-white television set, which was wired to an antenna on the roof and had a grand total of seven channels on it.

Aboard a Saturn V rocket, the Apollo 11 space vehicle is launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969. Onboard are astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Photo: NASA


I’d be surprised if any of those channels was not carrying the broadcast, where millions of people around the world heard the words, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had made it to the moon, and the nation and the world waited until they emerged from the lunar module and made their way down the ladder to plant their feet on the lunar surface.

The moment was captivating for people all over the world, but it wasn’t enough to contend with the sleepiness of a 9-year-old on a Sunday night. I told my father and brother that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. “I’m going to bed,” I announced.

“What? You’re going to miss this,” my father protested. “It’s a historic moment.”

He couldn’t sell me on the idea of staying up any longer. I made my way upstairs, stopping by the bathroom before turning in. But, just as I was “going to the bathroom” one last time for the day, I suddenly revived. I got my “second wind.” I figured, why not go back downstairs and watch a little more.

‘What? You’re going to miss this.’

And so I joined Dad and Charley just in time to watch Neil Armstrong descend the ladder, become the first man to step on the moon’s surface, and utter that catchy, somewhat ambiguous line about “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Detail, Reproduction of a television image taken by the Apollo 11 lunar surface camera of Neil Armstrong descending the lunar module. Photo: NASA


We witnessed history — live. And in a couple of days, we watched the splashdown in the Pacific. President John F. Kennedy’s dream had come to fruition: by the end of the decade, America had put a man on the moon and brought him safely back to earth.

From Kennedy’s death to the guns of Vietnam, it was a decade of tumult, and few families were immune from a variety of societal ills. But on one Sunday night in the summer of ’69, three of our own boys had brought us a little bit of tranquility, and America’s spirit soared like an Eagle.

Read all of our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing here. 

Apollo 11Apollo 11 memoriesJohn BurgerSpirituality
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