The power of one small step

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface on 'July 20, 1969. BOTTOM: Blackpool's tribute to Neil Armstrong  in the Space Age display of 1970.

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface on 'July 20, 1969. BOTTOM: Blackpool's tribute to Neil Armstrong in the Space Age display of 1970.

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Where were you when man stepped upon the Moon? Did you stay up to watch, look to the stars, and party with neighbours?

Neil Armstrong provided one of those defining moments of life for a generation of children now in their late 40s and early 50s.

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong

We had been told the Moon was made of cheese – or that if we looked hard we would see the Man on the Moon smiling down.

Now there was a man on the Moon for real. We joined 600 million people, a fifth of the world’s population, watching the first Moon landing, by Apollo 11 in July 1969, the largest audience for any single event in history.

The momentous moonwalk by Armstrong, who died on Saturday, and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, marked America’s victory in the Cold War space race that began in 1957 with the launch of the then-Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1.

Kids everywhere watched and waited at windows for a glimpse of the astronauts, a vigil mounted with the same innocence and excitement as the one for Santa’s sleigh. And we all wanted a telescope for Christmas.

Blackpool's tribute to Neil Armstrong  in the Space Age display of 1970.

Blackpool's tribute to Neil Armstrong in the Space Age display of 1970.

In the summer holidays we played on the beach, pretended to explore the Sea of Tranquillity, took turns at being Armstrong, first man to step onto the Moon, or Aldrin, the 
second. Nobody wanted to be Michael Collins, third member of the team, who remained alone in lunar orbit until their return.

Armstrong likened the surface to the “desert in the United States” but there was no whiff of conspiracy back then, no lunatics suggesting the lunar landing had been staged in a Hollywood set. And Russia’s cosmonauts sent their congratulations.

This was the wonder year. There’s a sense of lost innocence today. We felt if a man could land on the Moon he could do anything.

For Professor Nick Lister, Rossall-based astronomer, it was the man who reported on it who inspired him to become a star gazer.

Sir Patrick Moore still hails Apollo 11 as the “greatest of human achievements”.

The moment is frozen in time for all the right reasons, achievement rather than loss, unlike those other life defining milestones, JFK’s or Lennon’s or Princess Diana’s death or 9/11.

The first-ever all-night broadcast also made history with both BBC and ITV on air from 11.30pm (July 20) to 10.30am (July 21).

Neil Armstrong, 82, stepped on to the surface of the Moon at 3.56am our time. The Eagle had landed. He uttered the immortal words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

No tweets in those days or social networks. The internet was in its infancy as an interface message processor. American president Barack Obama tweeted this week: “Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time. Thank you, Neil, for showing us the power of one small step.”

The commentary was crackling but the coverage was cracking. Back in the studio James Burke, Patrick Moore and Cliff Michelmore filled in the silences. So where were you when man conquered the 
ultimate frontier – space? We put that question to leading locals.

Sheila Dibnah, of Blackpool, widow of industrial heritage champion Fred, says: “I was 12 and in Cornwall on the family holiday. The thing I remember most was the spooky intermittent ‘beeping’.

“The ghostly voices; Armstrong as he prepared to take his ‘One Small Step’, the grey pictures on the Pye telly with spindly-legs and push-buttons. I’d been allowed to stay up late and watch. There was a sense of ‘other-worldliness’ and my dad told us one day we’d be going to the Moon for holidays.”

Bispham businesswoman Vivienne O’Shea remembers her late gran’s joy at living to see the moment. “She was almost 70 and a keen sci-fi fan and knew more about the technical side than anyone I ever met. Her sense of wonder 
communicated itself to us; we watched silent and spellbound. I remember feeling this was the beginning of a whole new era, where boundaries no long existed and anything was possible.”

Linda Mcevilly, of Mereside, was 24, a hippie and pregnant. She admits: “It’s not the Moon landing I recall so much as Apollo 8 orbiting the Moon at Christmas 1968 and broadcasting ‘and darkness was upon the face of the deep.’ A 
wonderful spiritual moment.”

Blackpool heritage champion Neil Measures says: “It was the year I was born. My mum Carol named me after Neil Armstrong.”

Local historian Shirley Matthews remembers: “We had a big party at my mum’s house with all the neighbours in. Homemade cherry cake, best silver out, china cups!”

Richard Ryan, Blackpool Lights manager, concludes: “I remember it well, I was seven, and stayed up to watch the grainy black and white image on telly. It’s a sad passing – but it’s nice we have our own ‘Neil’ above the Rocket tram this year.”

Blackpool brought it all gloriously down to earth with a new Space Age Illuminations display in 1970. The town had already launched its own Rocket Tram, Tram-Nik One, in 1961, but had covered the Soviet-like name with advertising in 1968. Watch this Space indeed...