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How man’s first walk on the moon brought a divided nation together 50 years ago, and now

Fifty summers ago, chaos defined America.

The ongoing divisive battles for civil rights and equality for women. Vietnam War protests on college campuses. The Stonewall riots against police raids targeting gays.

Then there were the Tate-LaBianca murders, orchestrated by Charles Manson and his ragtag “Family.” And the Woodstock music and arts festival where hippies in the mud celebrated Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem on electric guitar.

Then July 20, 1969, happened.

A singular event pulled a fractured nation — a weary world — into a communal sense of awe and renewed imagination.

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The Miami Herald’s front page on Monday, July 21, 1969, recounted the singular event on Sunday July 20, 1969, that has had the world talking for 50 years: The USA put two men on the moon’s surface. Miami Herald File

Man on the moon

“Man Walks on the Moon,” the Miami Herald’s front-page headline shouted in big, bold letters followed by an eight-word lead paragraph: “Man landed and walked on the moon Sunday.”

Then came the accounts of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who, in that order, took humankind’s first steps onto an orb not named Earth.

A smaller headline abridged Armstrong’s dispatch from the moon’s surface to NASA’s mission control in Houston: “A small step for man, a leap for mankind.”

Today, America seems divided once again — and maybe could use another moon walk.

And so it will have one. July 20, 2019 is happening. The moon walk, or at least memories of it, have captured the attention of the country.

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From left, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin A. Aldrin, in a 1969 Apollo II crew portrait. NASA AP

Commemorative events

The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum in downtown Miami hosts special events on Saturday, including Apollo 11 Day and a Member Evening to celebrate the 50th anniversary.

Once inside, the museum encourages visitors to wear “their favorite NASA gear or grab a spacesuit and helmet” for a series of events.

Among them: hands-on, astronomy-related activities that include an exploration of the night sky in the museum’s Portable Planetarium. Screenings of the Smithsonian Channel’s new documentary, “The Day We Walked on the Moon.” Interactive programming and archival NASA footage displays.

This being 2019, there are “Moonwalk” photo moments, too, all the better to show everyone pictorially on Instagram and Facebook about what you did on the day 50 years after Neil Armstrong announced to a waiting world: “Tranquility base, here, the Eagle has landed.“

Television, which now is so much more than just the three major networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — that existed then, offers a plethora of specials, perhaps none more exhaustively detailed and entertaining than “Apollo 11,” director Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary. “Apollo 11” features newly discovered footage of that first moon landing mission and airs at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. on CNN.

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Original news account

So what did readers and TV audiences learn in what passed for “real time” on July 20, 1969 and the four days before Armstrong, who died at 82 in 2012, Aldrin, now 89, and Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins, now 88, returned to Earth on Thursday, July 24, 1969?

Here’s a bit of what the Miami Herald published on Monday, July 21, 1969:

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Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface. Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon July 20, 1969. He radioed back to Earth the historic news of “one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin spent nearly three hours walking on the moon, collecting samples, conducting experiments and taking photographs. In all, 12 Americans walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972. AP

Man landed and walked on the moon Sunday.

The fragile spaceship Eagle deposited American astronaut Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in the barren southwest corner of the Sea of Tranquility at 4:18 p.m., and 6-1/2 hours later, at 20 seconds past 10:56 p.m., Armstrong planted his left foot on the moon.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind“ were his first words.

In his normally calm voice tremulous with excitement, the first man on the moon radioed a graphic account of history‘s greatest adventure back to Earth while a TV camera beamed live pictures of the eerie lunar landscape to a spellbound audience of millions.

Twenty minutes later, Armstrong talked Aldrin down the ladder of the Eagle onto the firm, powdery soil of Tranquility Base.

Thus was completed an epic journey charted eight years ago but dreamed of since man first lifted his eyes toward the heavens.

For two hours, 10 minutes Sunday night, there WAS life on the moon. Two-legged creatures from the planet Earth talked, walked, ran and worked on the crust of an alien world.

They returned to the lunar module at 1:09 a.m. today. At 1:53 p.m. today, the astronauts will fire the big ascent engine to send them off the moon surface to rendezvous with the command module.

The descent stage of the lunar lander will serve as the launch platform during blast off from the moon.

But the landing 50 years ago could have had a completely different outcome.

Here’s more of what the Herald reported the day after:

The road to Tranquility Base was a quarter million miles long, but the last 200 feet were the worst.

In a heart-clutching finale to an otherwise phenomenally smooth flight, Armstrong snatched control of the Eagle from a computer and flew it to a safe landing on a level, rock strewn plain pocked with thousands of small craters. If Armstrong hadn’t taken the helm, the Eagle would have fallen into a crater the size of a football field, filled with boulders that could have meant disaster.

Instead, he delayed the landing long enough to permit the Eagle to soar over the perilous crater and come to rest in virtually upright position, ideal for takeoff and the long trip home.

“Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,“ commander Armstrong said after shutting the engine off.

The landing was so gentle that the Eagle’s footpads sank barely an inch or two into the fine sand-like soil.

“It has a stark beauty all its own, like much of the high desert of the southwest United States,“ Armstrong radioed from the surface. “It’s very pretty out here.“

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The Miami Herald published a special section on July 13, 1969. “Apollo 11: Man’s Journey to Tomorrow” was an 11-page, detailed look at how man would make it to the moon and back. Miami Herald File

If you go

What: Apollo 11 Day, a museum event with interactive displays, screenings of historical footage from July 20, 1969, and space travel exhibitions, including “Feathers to the Stars” and “Project Mars” and the new Frost Planetarium show, “Phantom of the Universe: The Hunt for Dark Matter”

Where: Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, 1101 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, July 20

Cost: Apollo 11 Day programming is free with paid museum admission of $29.95 adults, $20.95 youth ages 3-11, and free for children 2 and younger; members get in free

Information: frostscience.org/apollo11 and 305-434-9600

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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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