pparently there was a little confusion surrounding the recent death of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. Some people got him mixed up with Lance Armstrong, the newly shamed bicyclist, and NBC posted that astronaut Neil Young had died. I guess it is easy to confuse a guy who wrote a song called “Harvest Moon” with a guy who walked on the moon. For anyone around my age or older, though, the name Neil Armstrong and the defining moment of the first manned moon landing will forever be etched in our minds.
And if I needed another reason to never forget Armstrong and his accomplishment it is this: I too had an Apollo adventure in 1969. I know I was only five years old back then, but it is all true. And like the Apollo 11 moon shot my story was also full of heroes, suspense, drama, close calls and sword fights (OK, no sword fights).
Let me set the stage for you. In the fall of 1969 my mom was in charge of organizing the annual Duluth Symphony Ball. Given the timely excitement surrounding NASA the theme of the ball was the space program. To give the ball some pep my mom contacted NASA and asked if they would send some Apollo items for decoration and display. She was shocked to hear back that they would happily send some items to our house that she could take to the ball.
Here now is a comparative timeline of Armstrong’s and my adventures:
May 1, 1969: Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin pose for the crew’s first publicity photo.
Sept. 22, 1969: I am filmed, along with my friends Donnie Andreson and Eric Stammer, by a local television station as I run around a giant crate from NASA that was dropped off in my driveway. The cameraman cuts to the crate as it is opened to reveal, among other things, a full-size spacesuit and a scale model of the Saturn V rocket. The best shot on the coverage that airs on TV that night is a close-up of my smiling face.
June 1969: Skeptics wonder whether Apollo 11 will succeed. Can Armstrong and Aldrin land on the moon’s surface, safely walk around outside and then return back to the command module and then to Earth?
Sept. 23, 1969: I sit in my garage and stare at the spacesuit in the crate. The skeptic in me thinks the suit might be a fake. Is it a real spacesuit or is it just used for display? Will the ball be a bust on account of a phony suit?
July 16, 1969: Millions are amazed as they watch Apollo 11 blast off from Cape Canaveral.
Sept. 24, 1969: My brother Todd and I are amazed as we play for the first time with the metal model of the rocket. It stands taller than me and all the stages actually come apart. The lunar lander can be removed and its delicate landing gear retracted. Todd and I play with the various pieces endlessly.
July 20, 1969: People around the world stare in awe at television coverage as Armstrong and Aldrin begin the descent of their lunar module to the moon’s surface.
Sept. 25, 1969: My fellow kindergartners stare in awe at me as I unveil the coolest show and tell ever: NASA’s scale model of the Apollo rocket.
July 20, 1969 – mid afternoon: Hearts stop when Neil Armstrong coolly beats the clock as he maneuvers his ship past the planned landing spot, which is full of boulders, and puts it down just seconds before running out of fuel.
Sept. 26, 1969: My heart stops when, the day before the Duluth Symphony Ball, I drop the lunar lander model on the fireplace hearth and one of the landing gear legs breaks. Todd coolly uses some string to tie the gear into the up position. We slide the lander into the rocket before my mom sees what has happened.
July 24, 1969: Apollo begins its descent to the Earth after the three-day journey back from the moon. A sense of dread falls over the nation and the world when, during the fiery reentry, there can be no radio contact with the astronauts. Will the crew survive? We all breathe a sigh of relief when Armstrong’s voice finally responds to calls from controllers in Houston.
Sept. 27, 1969: The space suit and model rocket are delivered to the ball. Later that day my parents, dressed to the nines, leave us with a sitter and head to the ball as well. A sense of dread falls over Todd and me. Surely someone will discover the broken lunar lander and we will be punished in a fiery display of parental anger. I toss and turn in bed awaiting my parents’ return later that night. I can hardly stand the suspense as I hear my mom’s footsteps coming up the stairs to my bedroom. She sees I am awake, kisses me on the head and tells me to get to sleep. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Aug. 13, 1969: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are cheered at a ticker tape parade in New York City after spending 17 days in quarantine.
Oct. 14, 1969: Todd and I throw ourselves a ticker tape parade when we realize that if NASA has not contacted my mother about the broken model by now they probably never will.
So you can see that our adventures were really very similar. I just need to work on the fact that my story highlights my ridiculous cowardice and Armstrong’s highlights his unbelievable courage. R.I.P. Neil Armstrong.