Forty years ago, Variety declared the Apollo 11 moon landing the “Greatest Show Off Earth,” dispatching writer Martin Caidin to capture the scene in Cocoa Beach and Houston.
“Never has there been so momentous an event and so sparse and spartan the accommodations for the elite,” he wrote wryly, noting the wooden bleachers provided “VVIPs” like Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson to watch the launch and the “roach coach” truck that showed up to provide the only food.
“The TV notables soaked in the naked sun, but didn’t seem to care much,” he wrote. Johnny Carson, watching at Cape Canaveral with Ed McMahon, told him, “It’s just beautiful. Frightening and beautiful all at once.”
Today, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin will meet President Obama in the Oval Office for an early afternoon ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. All day long, there will be archival footage and interviews, as well as commentaries on NASA’s grand dreams of eventually landing a human on Mars.
It will be a case of deja vu, particularly to space buffs who follow these things, for the trio of astronauts have visited each president to mark the occasion just about every five years to since their short time on the lunar surface, and just about every anniversary has been greeted with some sort of variation of, Is Mars next? But we now get more excited about the newest special effects in a summer blockbuster than we do a Space Shuttle flight or even a Mars rover.
While NASA struggles for its share of the budget, Hollywood has, at the very least, had a big hand in at least reviving interest in the nostalgia of the moon missions, through movies like “Apollo 13,” countless documentaries and, more recently, the restoration of lunar footage from Lowry Digital. It was unthinkable 40 years ago, when the highest recorded television audience watched, and the networks invested millions not just in coverage but a dose of moon-themed entertainment from the likes of Duke Ellington and Danny Kaye, that the event would so quickly become and afterthought.
My first memories were of the moon program, of watching a nighttime launch of one of the Apollo missions and then, being just four or five years old, looking up at the moon and straining to see the astronauts on the lunar surface. We drank Tang and ate those cigar-shaped food bars. We had the Saturn V model rocket, and pretended to find moon rocks. By the time that I went to Neil Armstrong High School, outside of Minneapolis, in the mid-80s, the space program was either forgotten (rarely if ever mentioned in history or science class) or a piece of amusement.
In 1994, while working for the Los Angeles Times, I covered an aerospace event near LAX to mark the 25th anniversary of the moon landing. Armstrong was to be the speaker, but his plan to fly from D.C. to L.A. was foiled when, in the irony of ironies lost on no one, his United Airlines flight was canceled. Instead, his fill-in was Bill Dana, who treated the crowd to his space-age Jose Jimenez.
Variety was right back then. It was the “greatest show on earth,” with a mass euphoria and excitement that has not been matched. While many were predicting the next step would be a Mars landing by the turn of the century, there were already signs even that week of how the moon program would soon fade into memory.
“It is a fair guess that failure of Apollo 11 would not curtail future space programs but re-energize them,” Eric Severeid said in a CBS News commentary shortly before the landing, “Success may well curtail them because, for a long time to come, future flights will seem anti-climatic, chiefly of laboratory, not popular, interest, and the pressure to divert these great sums of money to inner space, terra firma and inner man will steadily grow.”
Update: Obama’s visit with the Apollo 11 astronauts… Also, networks mixed entertainment with the news in their round-the-clock coverage of Apollo. In the case of the BBC, it was a freewheeling session with Pink Floyd.