Sunday night, July 20, 1969, was sort of muggy in southern Maine. We were driving around in my friend’s weather-worn green 1950 Chevy, which his grandmother had given him. A week or so later we rolled it over a large rock in broad daylight and were lucky to live and ride another day. We didn’t know that yet, of course.

This Sunday the moon was a day or two out from its first quarter phase — another thing I did not know — so it had set by the time we were making our last rounds of Sebago Lake. All there could have been on Route 114 was starlight filtering through the trees. At some point as we drove the back roads, amid the gabble teenagers think is funny, I said, “I think the astronauts are landing on the moon tonight.”

This was not a complete shot in the dark. By this time (I was 16) I had read a lot of science fiction, and the idea of a spacecraft with people on board fascinated me. I did not know much about it, but thoughts of deep space shivered my mind.

My friend said he knew someone who might be watching it on TV — the father of his last-year’s girlfriend. So we circled the lake to her house in Raymond. Sure enough, in a pine-paneled living room lit by an orange-shaded lamp, the dad was watching grainy black and white TV pictures of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. They were on the moon. We sat on the couch with him and watched.

Amazed. As near as I can remember, this is about all I knew:

• My grandfather had long ago declared humans would never walk on the moon.

• Two guys were walking on the moon.

• Another guy was orbiting around the moon, waiting to pick them up.

• The mission was called Apollo 11. The landing craft was called Eagle.

• They named the landing spot Tranquility Base because it was on a plain called the Sea of Tranquility.

• The phrase “one small step for man” did not sound right.

• In my lifetime there would be bases on the moon like the ones in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

• Anything seemed possible.

That was about it. Afterward I learned a lot I did not know, such as:

• Scientists at the time were not sure what would happen when the astronauts landed. Some worried that the moon was covered with light powder so deep the Eagle would sink and disappear forever. Others were afraid moon rocks exposed to oxygen in the spacecraft might burst into flames.

• The Apollo 11 astronauts landed at 4:17 p.m., stepped foot on the moon at 10:56 p.m. EDT July 20, 1969, spent about 2.5 hours actually walking around, and took off at 1:54 p.m. July 21.

• Neil Armstrong in full space suit and gear would have weighed 348 pounds on Earth; on the moon he weighed 58 pounds.

• Their space suits got covered in ash-like moon dust.

• The astronauts were standing up in the lunar module, not sitting down like in science fiction movies.

• The walls of the landing module were made of paper-thin Mylar.

• The Apollo computers had only 128K of RAM.

• During the descent, the computer could not process all the data coming in and almost aborted the landing.

• Armstrong took over flying because the computer was going to land them in a boulder field.

• The landing kicked up so much dust it was like fog.

• After they landed, Buzz Aldrin got out a plastic bag with wine, a chalice and wafers and held a silent Communion service.

• Both going and coming back, Aldrin saw flashes of light in the command module that were never explained.

• About 50 pounds of rocks around 3.7 billion years old were brought back to Earth.

• Mike Collins in the orbiting command module was frightened by the possibility of having to leave Armstrong and Aldrin.

• Apparently no lunar germs returned to Earth with the astronauts.

• International treaties prohibited any nation from claiming the moon.

• Fifty years later, the last humans to set foot on the moon did so in 1972.

Anyway, Eagle landed on firm ground. Nothing burst into flames. The moon dust smelled like wet ashes. Armstrong said the mountains and plains appeared sharp and clear, but sizes and distances were hard to judge because there was nothing familiar for comparison. In sunlight the rolling land was tan-colored; in the shadows it was ashen gray. “It has a stark beauty all its own,” Armstrong said. Aldrin, coming down the ladder shortly after him, described it as “magnificent desolation.” He could actually see the curve of the moon’s surface over the horizon.

Well after midnight, my friend and I drove home in the mystical moist night-air. The future seemed very close, and very far away.

Years ago, the words on the plaque the astronauts left at Tranquility Base sounded like the future. Like something out of an Arthur C. Clarke novel. Now, with the 50th anniversary of the landing next week, it seems as though the future is all in the past.

Still, the universe is more immense now than it was then, if you can believe it. Or maybe it’s just that, as you get older, you get a clearer picture of how much you don’t know.

JULY 1969 A.D.


Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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