By LARRY HYPES
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
What a summer, 44 years ago. Many young men my age were thrilled to hear, just the week after second semester ended, that President Richard Nixon had decided to bring home some 25,000 soldiers from Vietnam. That was equal to a combat division, and while the brave military personnel were willing to do their patriotic duty, it was painfully apparent that there would be no Southeast Asian victory under the circumstances. That number was about 6 percent of the almost 540,000 U.S. troops stationed in the faraway country. Peace talks were underway and the governments of three countries — North and South Vietnam, and the United States, were, it finally seemed, to some kind of a settlement.
The decade’s most controversial show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, had been canceled by CBS in early April, in part because of its opposition to the war and the Nixon administration. Civil rights activist and anti-war protestor Harry Belafonte had been among the noted Hollywood stars whose skits on the show were often cut from the final list. The brothers had made it a routine habit to withhold preview tapes, according to network officials.
In another war-related action just days after the Smothers announcement, anti-war activists demonstrated in some form in over 40 U.S. cities.
With the death toll announced as approaching 34,000, news broadcasts reported that more American soldiers had been killed in Vietnam than in Korea. At this same time, it was revealed that B-52 bombing raids had just launched — the biggest attack of the conflict. However, it was not on the earth but beyond it that would produce the biggest single headline of that summer. Back in 1961, the late President John F. Kennedy had ignited a new chapter in the “space race” when he challenged the country and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) USA had fired unmanned vehicles that had crash landed on the lunar surface.
Sputnik, the Russian satellite that had inspired the Americans — including a group of young men at Big Creek High School in McDowell County — in 1957, had first conquered the “new frontier.” The United States fought to catch up, and that included a dozen unsuccessful attempts to hit the moon. Finally, however, with the Mercury projects and the success of astronauts like John Glenn to prove it might be possible, the U.S. began to forge ahead. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the spur was applied with the initiation of the mighty Apollo project. Using the most powerful engines in history, the objective was clear: America was taking aim at the moon.
A couple of incidents from that season kept the issue in focus. One was the May 18 broadcast around the world of Earth from outer space. It was the first live color shot ever shown on TV of our planet. Ironically, one of the main focus objects (if one looked closely) was the portion of the Demilitarized Zone as well as the country of Israel. Secondly, those pictures were beaming from Apollo 10.
By July 16, the Apollo 11 spacecraft was ready for liftoff from Pad 39-A at Cape Kennedy (formerly Cape Canaveral) in Florida. Radio and television kept a minute-by-minute review of the plans. What most of us did not know, in those days when gasoline was 39 cents per gallon, that our effort had cost some $25 billion to send now three Americans almost 239,000 miles at more than 17,000 miles per hour to first orbit and then try to land on the moon. The command ship was called “Columbia” and in it Michael Collins would circle the moon by himself at a distance of some 69 miles above the surface, as we were told. It was his job to keep the home fires burning so that his two partners could make history.
With more problems than the viewing public knew about the landing craft dubbed “Eagle” made its way down. It was later revealed that the vehicle was only seconds away from a fuel shortage situation that could have proven fatal in the landing effort. Nevertheless, the landing was a success as the determined Americans thrilled some 600 million people watching and listening from virtually every house and hamlet on the globe.
At 4:17 p.m. on July 20, 1969 Eastern Daylight time, the Eagle landed. Barely more than six hours later, at 10:56 p.m., Neil Armstrong of Wapakoneta, Ohio, put his foot in the lunar dust proclaiming it “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” His partner, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin was right behind. Aldrin was the old man of the group at 39. Both Armstrong and Collins were 38.
By international agreement, the U.S. could not “claim” the moon but proclaimed with an American flag that they came in peace. Such tranquility that turbulent summer was made possible in large part by the contribution of a former German scientist, Werner Von Braun, who had once worked for Adolph Hitler.
Von Braun led NASA from the earth to the moon. As Armstrong stood on the moon, just eight years and 56 days since Kennedy’s promise, he had brought the U.S. to an unparalleled pinnacle. With the end of the Vietnam battle drawing ever closer, the race to the moon had already been won. There would be 10 more earthmen to walk on the moon.
All of them from the United States.
Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.