Just in time for the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, Craig Nelson presents a well-researched account of the landmark event of July 20, 1969. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, their families and the NASA ground crew share the spotlight in this story.
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Following the announcement of Apollo 11's launch date, a great swarm headed for Cocoa Beach, the seaside town directly south of Cape Canaveral's eighty-eight-thousand acre Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island. Even by NASA shot standards, the Apollo 11 draw was a crushing flood — over one million spectators, hoping for a glimpse of history, descended on the narrow barrier islands southeast of Orlando in central Florida. Wernher von Braun and his wife alighted from a helicopter on a nearby golf course; in time, they were joined by Spiro Agnew, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Sargent Shriver, Jack Benny, Cardinal Cooke, Daniel Patrick Monynihan, Barry Goldwater, Johnny Carson, Gianni Agnelli, Prince Napoleon of Paris, 400 foreign ministers, 275 corporate executives, 19 governors, 40 mayors, half of Congress, 1,000 cops and state troopers, 3,000 boats anchored in local waters, 3,497 journalists, and an exaltation of Supreme Court justices.
Neil Armstrong's wife and kids, joined by astronaut Dave Scott and Life magazine reporter Dodie Hamblin, were part of a North American Aviation yacht party on the Banana River. This was unusual, for the great majority of astronaut families avoided attending launches, worried about their children, and the media assault, in the event of a disaster. "I remember that we did not go to the Cape to watch the launch. I found out later it was because, #1, they could not afford it (money was always tight with five kids and a military salary) and, #2, my dad did not want us all out in the grand stands in case the rocket exploded during the launch," Gayle Anders said after Apollo 8. Neil Armstrong, in fact, had told Jan they shouldn't come, but she insisted. Before she could fly to the Cape and enjoy the day with her family, her friends, and Dodie Hamblin, however, Mrs. Armstrong — a synchronized swimming coach and "as strong as horseradish," according to college friend Gene Cernan — stood atop a screaming-pink dais erected in front of the family's El Lago, Texas home, and endured another press conference:
"Will you let the children stay up and watch the moon walk?"
"I don't care for what they do."
"Is this the greatest moment of your life?"
"No sir. When I was married, it was the greatest moment of my life."
"Are you pleased with the Sea of Tranquility as a place to land?"
"What are you having for dinner tonight? Space food?"
The astronaut wives were so flabbergasted by the absurdity of their press questions that they even had developed a skit parodying the entire process:
"We're here in front of the trim, modest suburban home of Squarely Stable, the famous astronaut who has just completed his historic mission, and we have with us his attractive wife, Primly Stable. Primly Stable, you must be happy, proud, and thankful at this moment."