Saturday marks half a century since mankind’s “one giant leap”. Curator Photography Athol McCredie reflects on the Apollo 11 spaceflight – when humans first landed on the moon.
Fifty years ago, on 20 July 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the moon. I was there! Well, not there there, but I remember the moment. I was at high school and we were all ushered into the assembly hall to hear the live radio broadcast of Armstrong setting foot on the moon’s surface. And his famous words, ‘That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind’.
I probably didn’t spot how gendered the language was, but I do remember thinking, ‘Didn’t he mean a small step for ‘a’ man?’ The sentence didn’t really make sense otherwise. Armstrong always maintained he did say ‘a man’ but that it wasn’t picked up in the transmission. You can listen to the recording yourself and make up your own mind, but I still can’t hear it. I reckon it was just a slip of the tongue.
Armstrong was, after all, speaking before an audience of millions, and though renown for his cool head in life-threatening situations, public speaking probably wasn’t his thing. You can imagine the pre-launch conversation with NASA publicity staff: ‘Hey, Neil, when you step onto the moon you can’t just say, “Hi Mom, I’m on the moon”. We’ve come up with something we think would be appropriate for the occasion.’ So he practiced it over and over in his mind on the way to the moon, but in a moment of nervousness, aware that more people than at any time in history were listening to a single person – him! – he tripped on the words.
I doubt there was a television set at school, but even if there was, New Zealand only got a delayed video version of Armstrong’s moment. The country didn’t have a satellite dish, so an RNZAF Canberra light bomber flew to Sydney to collect video tape from a signal received at the Parkes Observatory radio telescope. The return flight set an unofficial record of 2 hours 25 mins flying time from Sydney to Wellington. On arrival the tape was rushed to the NZBC television studios for the 7.30pm news, and we saw a blurry shape in black-and-white slowly descend the lunar module ladder and say those famous, if flawed, words again.
We later saw the astronauts set up an American flag. This also struck a discordant note for me, as it didn’t fit with Armstrong’s claim of mankind’s achievement. It also seemed like a territorial assertion, though in the context of the Cold War era space race it was more a declaration that the United States had definitively won against the Soviet Union in getting a man to the moon first.
But what we didn’t know at the time was that Apollo 11 had taken small flags of many countries to the moon and brought them back. And that messages from leaders of 73 nations (no communist countries of course) were attached to the lunar module’s landing stage that stayed behind on the moon. These were photographically reduced to micro-dots etched into a silicon disk. New Zealand’s prime minister, Keith Holyoake, was represented. Like most, he offered a worthy but dull message about ‘peace and co-operation’. Some were more imaginative and poetic. President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast wrote, in part:
“I hope also that he [the first astronaut on the moon] would tell the Moon how beautiful it is when it illuminates the nights of the Ivory Coast.
“I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are, when viewed from up here.”
In January 1970 Spiro Agnew, Vice-President of the United States, visited New Zealand in the face of vociferous protests against the Vietnam War. While here on his goodwill tour he presented New Zealand with its tiny flag mounted in a plinth below samples of moon rock brought back by Apollo 11. These were transferred to the collection of the Dominion Museum (now Te Papa) and shown to large crowds around the country.
I remember going to see them. It was a bit like trying to get a good view of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, only it wasn’t just other people that were the problem – there wasn’t very much to see. The four ‘rocklets’, as one official document called them, were encased in a resin hemisphere that made them look bigger than they were. But even then they looked about the size of one or two grains of rice each. Still, they had the aura of religious relics brought back by a traveller from a distant land.
New Zealand later received a larger rock – about the size of a grape – from the Apollo 17 mission and this too went to the museum. In total, 270 rocks were given to countries and US states from the Apollo 11 and 17 missions but today about 180 have disappeared. Some were stolen, others given to dictators who regarded them as their personal property and who later sold or gave them away. Most were just mislaid. That’s the problem with inter-governmental gifts: what do you do with them? Sooner or later they get consigned to the storeroom, lost in office shifts or sealed up in unlabelled boxes. However, New Zealand (and Te Papa) can hold its head up high as being among the 90 countries and states who have cared for their gifts and can still show them.