50 years after moon landing, the thrill of Apollo 11 remains powerful for some Lawrence residents

On July 15, 2019, Robert Swan displays the postcard that he sent to his parents during his quick trip to Florida to watch the Apollo 11 moon launch on July 16, 1969.

Half a century after the Apollo 11 launch and moon landing, that week in the summer of 1969 is still a time when people can recall just where they were and how they felt as history unfolded.

As people around the world muse on humanity’s bold quarter-million-mile space journey and the awe-inspiring first steps of Neil Armstrong onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, the Journal-World spoke to a former astronaut, a historian, a science fiction writer and a local resident regarding their memories and observations of that time.

On the scene

The day before the Apollo 11 launch, Lawrence resident Robert Swan impulsively decided to fly to Florida and watch the spacecraft lift off for the moon.

At 27, Swan had been fascinated with space travel for a long time, beginning in 1957 with the flight of the Soviet dog Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth.

He boarded his flight in Kansas City the morning of July 16, 1969, arriving in Orlando by 7:30 a.m. There was pandemonium at the airport, where Swan found thousands of people with the same idea he had, arriving at the last minute to watch the launch. He quickly met men from Sweden, Massachusetts and New Jersey, who all shared a taxi with him to get as close as they could to the launch site.

Swan recalled highways congested with vehicles and reports of a million people in the area of the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch.

“We told the cab driver to take us as far as he could, and we got within 10 miles of the launch site,” Swan said.

They arrived about an hour before launch time, which was 9:32 a.m.

Swan was far enough away that he couldn’t hear the massive roar of liftoff from launch pad 39A, but he did see the soaring Saturn V space vehicle, which carried the crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

“After the launch, the fellow from Boston and I somehow got to the Kennedy Space Center and visited the 500-foot high Vehicle Assembly Building,” Swan said. They then took a bus to within 75 yards of launch pad 39A, which was still billowing steam.

“We were back in the museum in time to hear over a PA system the historic words, ‘Apollo 11, you’re go for the moon,'” Swan said.

Everyone applauded, and it sunk in for Swan that he was witnessing history.

He flew back to Kansas City the next day, July 17. The trip had been such a whirlwind that he never exchanged addresses with the men he met.

Three days later, he went to a friend’s house and on TV watched Neil Armstrong take “one giant leap for mankind.”

“I still feel the same excitement when I see the replays,” Swan said.

What survives of his trip is a postcard featuring an artist’s rendition of the moon landing that he sent to his parents in Topeka — plus, of course, his memories.

photo by: Contributed photo

Robert Swan’s enthusiasm for watching the launch of Apollo 11 is expressed in the postcard he sent from Florida to his parents during his whirlwind trip to the Kennedy Space Center.

“It was my proudest moment as an American, knowing that our country had met (President John F. Kennedy’s) seemingly impossible challenge of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,” Swan said. “So that definitely makes it a highlight of all my experiences of my life.”

A historian’s perspective

photo by: Contributed photo

David Farber, the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at the University of Kansas, said that on the day of the moon landing, July 20, 1969, “everyone around the world was rooting for the same thing.”

On July 20, 1969, David Farber, the current Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at the University of Kansas, was a 12-year-old torn between his fascination with baseball and watching the first manned spacecraft landing on the moon.

Farber’s family was visiting Washington, D.C., when the lunar module, Eagle, was landing on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Farber and his family were staying at the Shoreham Hotel. Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game was also taking place in the nation’s capital that week. Many of the baseball players in town for the game were at the Shoreham’s bar.

“The players were showing up, and I couldn’t decide what was more exciting, so I tried to dash back and forth,” Farber said, explaining how he ran from watching the moon landing with his parents to going down to the bar to get autographs from the players, who were also watching the moon landing unfold.

Finally, Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, asked Farber if he knew what was happening. Farber said Gibson asked him why he was in the bar with them. Then he told him to go up and watch history being made with his family.

“We were glued to the television; everyone watched. At a time of the ‘generation gap,’ it brought families together,” Farber said.

And it was also an international event.

“That day, everyone around the world was rooting for the same thing,” Farber said. “In a few short years, the Russians and Americans actually did a space mission together. What started as a Cold War race had become a partnership.”

For several years prior to the 1969 launch, there was some controversy — and growing anger — in the African American community because of the money spent on the space program. Not everyone was on board, Farber said. Right up until the launch, a lot of division persisted over the mission. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who replaced the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the money should be spent on Earth rather than on getting to the moon.

But on July 20, the nation set those issues aside.

“The world watched in support of what was happening at a time of so much political polarization; people came together,” Farber said.

Space nerd

photo by: Richard Gwin

KU professor Steven Hawley, a former astronaut who worked at NASA for three decades, holds a model of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Like millions of others, Steven Hawley couldn’t take his eyes off the family TV set on that historic Sunday evening.

Living in Salina, the 18-year-old had just graduated from high school and was headed to the University of Kansas. He was watching alone because the rest of his family was on vacation while he stayed home for a summer job.

Hawley was a self-proclaimed “space nerd.” He decided in third grade that he wanted to be an astronomer. While he loved space, at the time he didn’t think he could be an astronaut because back then they were test pilots.

But he had a dream that one day scientists would want observatories in space, and there was an outside chance they might want an astronomer as an astronaut.

Watching that night, Hawley was elated. But, like most watching, he didn’t appreciate how hard that mission — the largest peacetime government initiative in U.S. history — actually was. It was not until he became part of the space program that he understood the complexity of the endeavor.

As an astronomer, Hawley would complete five space shuttle missions, including helping to launch the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 and a mission to repair it in 1997. He became NASA’s director of flight crew operations at Houston’s Johnson Space Center

Now an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy, Hawley began to realize his students at KU were so young that they seemed to think the Hubble telescope had always been there.

“I wanted to impress upon them great things don’t just happen,” Hawley said. The concept of the Hubble began back in the mid-1940s. Likewise, the Apollo project was a decadelong program with a vision of it preceding that.

“It took advocacy, teamwork and overcoming obstacles to make things happen,” Hawley said. “I thought it important that so many people worked so hard to make Hubble and Apollo happen. You don’t expect great things to happen in the next week or without commitment and hard work. It takes visionary leaders sacrificing a lot for the team effort.”

While the Apollo lunar missions ended in 1972, Hawley, who was at NASA for 30 years, said NASA had a plan to put astronauts on the moon again by 2024. He admits to some skepticism because he said it would be challenging to get the funding from Congress.

As far as heading to Mars, Hawley said it would require not only money but the same type of vision that the moon mission did, including technical expertise, passionate advocacy, leadership and determination.

Science fiction becomes reality

Prolific science fiction writer and former KU professor James Gunn shared his memory of the moon landing with the Lawrence Journal-World on July 15, 2019. He is holding one of his many books. In the background is a painting by Richard Powers, which was the frontispiece of Gunn’s book “Kampus.”

On July 20, 1969, science fiction writer James Gunn was 46 and watching the moon landing on TV with his family at their Lawrence home on Mississippi Street.

Now, 50 years later, Gunn said an exact feeling from that moment was hard to put into words.

“It’s hard to remember because of the curious phenomenon that it got shown so many times later on with Armstrong stepping off the lander onto the dusty soil,” Gunn said.

One thought that comes to mind is that the footage from the moon was so gray and foggy.

“I remember reflecting they should have had a better camera,” Gunn said. “The moon shots were always fuzzy. But still I can remember feeling it was really a great moment in the history of the human species and a great moment for science fiction.

“I remember hearing Walter Cronkite describing it and seeing the climactic moment of the first step onto the moon,” Gunn said.

Later, Isaac Asimov, the legendary science fiction author, would tell Gunn that the moon landing was a culminating experience for science fiction. Asimov, he said, felt that without the decades of fiction, the decades of dreaming, people would never have believed the reality.


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