Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

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Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission
Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Zenith television showroom at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street in Manhattan to watch as Apollo 11 began its journey to the moon. July 16, 1969. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

PAST TENSE
JULY 15, 2019

As the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission left Earth, landed on the moon and made the long trip home, The New York Times sent photographers to capture the excitement and wonder of people watching the journey. We asked award-winning poet Adrian Matejka to write about those images.

Read more about how Apollo 11 was one of the first global media spectaculars. »

By ADRIAN MATEJKA

The moon is a satellite fully dependent on the Earth for its position in the sky, even as it pretends to be autonomous. Like humans, it needs the sun for its glow and brightness even as it pretends to have its own shine.

We have been drawing it for centuries in our grand communal imagination, but it wasn’t until 1840 that the first detailed photograph of it was taken, by John W. Draper. All we knew about the moon had been imagined or learned from a distance.

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

The CBS remote control room on the day of the moon landing. July 20, 1969. Michael Evans/The New York Times

The Apollo 11 mission was a case study in resourcefulness and improvisation, accomplished using pencils, slide rules, and analog genius. The best of our creative intentions focused on ascension. Walt Whitman said, “I ascend from the moon, I ascend from the night” to whatever is above and beyond, and we did that with less computing power than is found in a child’s toy today. “Above and beyond”: the way we talk about the go-getters and heroes, about success and its double-breasted benefits. But on July 20, 1969, above and beyond became geography instead of adjective when Neil Armstrong put the first earthly feet on the first soil independent of Earth.

Back down here, humans were going to work, unless they had some leeway. We caught buses and cabs, and walked briskly to our jobs, unless we didn’t have to. In which case we slowed our pace and looked up at the open sky in the middle of the day. It’s estimated that 650 million people worldwide followed the landing on television or other broadcast and heard Armstrong’s sanguine belief in mankind.

Karly Lee couldn’t tear her eyes away from the screens at Vazac’s Horseshoe Bar on Avenue D. July 20, 1969. Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

You can see it in the pictures: men and women looking up at the sky, some confused, some as astonished as the moon itself was when we showed up. Astonishment is the same engine that moves us upward, past the audacity of humanity. Some kind of transcendence of our mundane movements to the grocery, to the bright green park at the city’s center, to the dentist in the backdrop of the day-to-day segregation of 1969.

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

Even the City that Never Sleeps stopped in its tracks when Armstrong took that small step where no man had stepped before. July 21, 1969. Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

People at the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center watching as Neil Armstrong took a giant leap into the history books. July 21, 1969. Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

Pedestrians in Times Square stopping to track the astronauts’ progress. July 21, 1969. Michael Evans/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

Now, we’ve seen everything. July 21, 1969. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

A brief moment of celebration, and then people around the world held their breath once more as they waited for the astronauts to return to Earth. July 21, 1969. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

Employees at Chase Manhattan Bank watching the astronauts on a conference-room television. July 21, 1969. Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

Americans of all ages were transfixed by the Apollo mission. July 21, 1969. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

Douglas Jackson spending his lunch hour listening for updates on his transistor radio. July 21, 1969. Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

A man walking on Earth, reading about the men who walked on the moon. July 21, 1969. Jack Manning/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

A crowd surrounding a limousine parked on Broad Street, watching Apollo 11 safely land on the car’s built-in TV. July 24, 1969. William E. Sauro/The New York Times

The brass bands trumpet in the tin-can background. Everyone who is able watches upward as if the men on the moon are actually visible after all that majestic ignition. Americans, one and all, cheering for all that we can imagine, regardless of race or class. This — the landing, the moon itself — was our American territory. We looked up, mostly in admiration and applause. We looked up, and we would never be in agreement like this again.

Their mission accomplished, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. They were welcomed as heroes. Ernie Sisto/The New York Times

Looking Back at People Watching the Apollo 11 Mission

Guests at the American Museum of Natural History watching the splashdown projected, live and in color, on the dome of the Hayden Planetarium. July 24, 1969. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

EDITOR: Veronica Chambers PHOTO EDITOR: Anika Burgess SENIOR STAFF EDITOR: Brian Thomas Gallagher DIGITAL DESIGN: Shannon Lin RESEARCHER: Nick Donofrio CONTRIBUTING REPORTER: Jennifer Harlan PHOTO ARCHIVE: Jeff Roth ARCHIVAL ASSISTANT: Sarah Borell SPECIAL THANKS: Monica Drake, Nakyung Han, William O’Donnell, James Nieves, Michael Bevans, Sonny Figueroa, Alessandra Montalto, Patricia Wall