Monday, July 20, 2015

Musical Monday - CBS News Coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing with Walter Cronkite

Even though I'm labeling this as Musical Monday, there is very little actual music in this selection. But today is the forty-sixth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and it seemed to me like featuring almost anything else simply would have been wrong. This is a beautifully edited selection from Walter Cronkite's coverage of the event, starting with Kennedy's 1961 State of the Union address in which he announced the national goal of landing a man on the Moon, and then segueing to July 1969, with Cronkite leading CBS News' coverage first of the launch of Apollo 11, then the landing of the Eagle, the first steps by Armstrong and Aldrin on the surface of the Moon, and finally, the mission's return to Earth and splashdown.

Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins

This coverage contains so many iconic moments: The instant when the LM crew switches from reporting from the Eagle to broadcasting from Tranquility Base, Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder to set foot on the Moon making his famous statement "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind", and revealing the plaque on the base of the LM announcing that the explorers came in peace for all mankind. But there's also Cronkite's reactions, overcome with emotion upon the announcement that the Eagle had landed, only able to say "Oh boy!" in response, a moment in which he was not merely the reporter handing the news to the public, but also part of the public, a witness to events of such magnitude that he could do little more than stand and gape in amazement. Later when he had composed himself, Cronkite described the experience as a dream, or more specifically a dream come true.

It wasn't only Walter Cronkite who was giddy over the Moon landing: This was a huge event in the science fiction community. For most Americans as well as many others around the world, the lunar landing represented the culmination of their dreams of the future. The news coverage of Apollo 11 won the 1970 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, reflecting the intense interest that science fiction fandom of the day had in the U.S. space program in general, and the Apollo program specifically. Even though "news coverage" seems to not really fit into a category intended to recognize dramatic works, the win for this entry over the competing works The Bed-Sitting Room, The Illustrated Man, Marooned, and the entire run of the television show The Immortal seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable. This was such a huge cultural event that it was certain to, and actually did, steamroll over any competition. It is easy to forget that this landing took place just two and a half years after the Apollo 1 disaster that nearly destroyed the program, and a mere seven months after Apollo 8 made the first manned orbit of the Moon.

But it wasn't just the event that was honored, as huge an event as it was it would have been a mere blip on the cultural radar were it not for the news coverage that honored it. While all of the news organizations of the day reported on this historic event, I feel fairly certain that the what the Hugo voters were primarily honoring was this set of news broadcasts. It is almost impossible now to separate Cronkite's reporting from the event itself, his reactions and commentary are so interwoven with the Moon landing in the public consciousness that seeing the one without the other is almost disconcerting. Cronkite's eloquence served to elevate an already transcendent moment, as he said "The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us, because if we are not able to land, we are at least able to follow. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins are the best of us, and they led us further and higher than we ever imagined we are likely to go."

I was born just a few months before the Apollo 11 landing. My father says he propped me up on his lap to watch when it happened, in the hope that somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain there would be a memory of the event. I don't think memory really works that way, but it is nice to hope that what he says is true. I am among the youngest people who started life before a man had walked on the Moon. We have not returned to the Moon since I was three years old. This is a travesty. Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins led, and we have not followed, being far too concerned with trivialities rather than taking the next steps forward.

Someday, in the far future, I hope that my obituary mentions that I was born prior to Armstrong walking on the Moon. I hope that this is regarded with the same amazement that people currently regard people who were born before the Wright brothers flew. I also hope that by then, the Apollo program will have become the start of something rather than the still born monument to human potential that it seems to be right now. Cronkite said that "The date's now indelible. It is going to be remembered for as long as man survives: July 20, 1969. The date man reached, and walked on, the Moon." I hope he was right. I hope we never forget what we can achieve when we reach beyond ourselves to grasp greatness.

1969 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation: 2001: A Space Odyssey
1972 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation: A Clockwork Orange

What Are the Hugo Awards?

Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation Winners

1970 Hugo Award Nominees

Subsequent Musical Monday: Everything Is Awesome!

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