It was the summer of ’69 and I was literally over the moon as I had just graduated from the American School of Tangier, a US secondary school in Tangier, Morocco and was preparing to go to Cornell University in the US for further studies in engineering.
Amidst all the excitement of getting ready for university, another extraordinary event, the imminent moon landing, heightened my adrenalin levels as I was highly interested in science.
Way back in ‘68 and ‘69 when the Russians and Americans were running neck and neck in the race towards the moon, I was actually rooting for the Russians as they were the first to launch the space satellite Sputnik and the first to put a man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. The Soviets were also the first to hard land (unpowered) and soft land (powered) a spacecraft on the moon. The U.S.S.R. was also the first to get photos of the lunar surface.
I would jokingly tell my American friends in school that “the Russians are gonna paint the moon red!”
They would laugh back: “nah, we doubt it, but even if they do, heck when we get there we will spray it white with the Coca Cola logo!”
Such was the ingenuity of American marketing even way back then.
I remember well also that after the “dress rehearsal” Apollo 10 mission in May of the same year, there were rumours that Russia, cloaked in secrecy, would somehow beat the US and send up a manned mission to land on the moon before the upcoming Apollo 11 voyage in July.
However, the great day finally arrived for the Americans. My family and I huddled around the black and white TV on July 16, 1969, to watch history unfurl. With memories of the fire that killed three astronauts in the Apollo 1 mission a couple of years earlier and Neil Armstrong’s near death experience a year earlier still fresh in everyone’s minds, I kept my fingers crossed that nothing drastic would occur as the countdown began.
And then the magical moment came as the world cheered the successful lift-off! Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon carrying Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Mike Collins.
For four nail-biting days, I followed the news as to how far the spacecraft had reached. Many mused that some kind of mishap would occur and that the mission would be aborted. Finally, the world got to know that Apollo 11 had gone into orbit around the moon. Neil and Buzz readied themselves to get into the lunar module and descend onto the moon’s surface.
Then came the mystical moment as the dynamic duo touched down on the moon on July 20, 1969. Yes folks, the Eagle had landed (Eagle was the nickname of the lunar module)!
Neil Armstrong donned in his spacesuit, climbed out of the lunar module and became the first man to put foot on the moon!
Indeed as Neil so aptly proclaimed: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind!”
Later that year, I was fortunate enough to see the moon dust and rock at my university where they were sent for analysis. The following year, I visited Houston on the first anniversary of the landing to see the exhibition of all the mock-ups that formed that historic journey.
Also since that fateful day I followed all the manned Apollo missions and have befriended many similar souls. Even here in Canada, my next door neighbor, Richard Messer, the former executive director of the Kerr village Business Improvement Area and recipient of the Queen’s diamond jubilee award, is a space buff and has many Apollo mission souvenirs.
I too have many souvenirs and to date I have the original Life magazine devoted to the mission. It is a real antique piece preserved in cloth.
It is a matter of pride to know that on the 50th anniversary of that memorable voyage, India is ready to launch the satellite Chandrayaan-2 to mark its historic mission to the dark side of the moon.