As the sun set to make way for nighttime and the stars, thousands gathered on the National Mall in the District on both Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20 to view images from the Apollo 11 mission, projected onto the Washington Monument — part of a worldwide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the moon.
On Saturday morning, July 20 at Spacefest in the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space, pint-sized visitors, decades away from being born when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon’s surface in 1969, swarmed the AMNH, along with their parents struggling to keep up, as they all enjoyed educational, fun-filled family-friendly presentations, performances and hands-on activities about the wonders of the moon, Mars and beyond.
Meanwhile, later Saturday evening, an adult-focused, celebrity-filled fete awaited those fortunate enough to garner a ticket took place at the Kennedy with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) and NASA joining forces for an unforgettable, expertly-crafted presentation that titillated the senses.
Heavy hitters like Herbie Hancock and Pharrell Williams teamed up with the NSO, while a stream of archival video footage, well-edited and impactful, cast images of the moon, the Earth and exciting process which Americans alive back in 1969 eagerly watched from their black-and-white televisions from their living rooms and dens. Williams may have even stolen the show when he reeled in the audience with his award-winning song, “Freedom.”
Actor LeVar Burton, not to be outdone, along with other TV personalities including Meredith Vieira and Mark Savage, brought dramatic emphasis in their reading of excerpts from author Arthur C. Clarke and John F. Kennedy. In his stead, the son and granddaughter of Neil Armstrong, Mark and Kali, belted out a song, “Flight of the Fancy,” while the screen showcased scenes of their family flying toy planes.
When Michael Collins, one of the three astronauts from the 1969 mission, took the stage, a storm of applause awaited him, visibly moving the 88-year-old as he uttered, “It’s nice to be here. It’s nice to be anywhere,” before delivering comments he’d shared in September 1969 with members of Congress — remarks that brought as much relevance and power to today’s listeners as they did 50 years ago.
For the Record
Apollo 11 was the spaceflight that first landed humans on the moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin formed the American crew that landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle. Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface. Aldrin joined him shortly thereafter where they spent just over two hours together outside the spacecraft and collected lunar material to bring back to Earth. Michael Collins flew the command module Columbia solo in lunar orbit while they were on the moon’s surface.
In total, Armstrong and Aldrin spent close to 22 hours on the lunar surface at a site they named Tranquility Base before lifting off to rejoin Columbia in lunar orbit. They returned to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24 after more than eight days in space.
Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface was broadcast on live TV to a worldwide audience which he described in the incomparable phrase as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
In many ways, Apollo 11 served as the postscript to the Space Race as it fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s national goal in 1961: “Before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
The landing also allowed America to best its most powerful enemy at that time, the Soviet Union, who, in their collective Cold War rivalry, had made similar attempts to be the first nation to put a man on the moon.
As for the rest of the world, parties took place in elaborate fashion in hotspots from Paris and Barcelona to London and Tokyo.
NASA marked the historic 50th with streamed footage of the launch online — thus providing a whole new generation the opportunity to see the historic moment, watched by half a billion people 50 years ago when upon the landing of the spacecraft on the lunar surface, Apollo 11 Commander Armstrong (who died in 2012 at 82) sent this message both to Earth: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”