Those old enough to remember the day 50 years ago, never forget where they were or what they were thinking on July 20, 1969 — when humans first stepped onto the surface of the moon.
“It was a real turning point in human history,” said Mark Littmann, director of what then was Salt Lake City’s Hansen (now Clark) Planetarium. “Up until that point, humans had existed only on Earth. And now, for the first time, they existed, at least briefly, in another world.”
Seeing the panoramic view of the moon answered a lot of questions for Littmann, who served as the planetarium’s director from 1965 to 1983 and was responsible for producing many of the venue’s first major star shows.
“All the simulations I had seen of the moon and all the reading I had done for planetarium shows,” Littmann said, “nothing compared to those sketchy first television pictures.”
The Clark Planetarium is one of the few public museums to have a moon rock on permanent loan from NASA. About the size of an apricot, it was part of the 842 pounds of lunar rocks, pebbles, sand and dust the six Apollo moon missions brought back to Earth between 1969 and 1972.
Littmann, who now teaches science writing and journalism at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said he also was appreciative that while astronauts planted an American flag on the moon, the United States did not try to claim it as its own. "Countries had previously agreed that it would be everyone’s,” he said. “The moon deserves our respect like that.”
An estimated 650 million people watched on television as astronaut Neil Armstrong, who died in 2012, walked on the lunar surface and declared “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
When The Salt Lake Tribune asked readers to share their memories of the historic event, most responses involved sitting with family in front of a black-and-white television.
“I went to my best friend’s house because his family had one of those newfangled color TVs,” remembered Park City resident Ben Ling. “Then I found out the moon video was shot in black and white. But the wonder of seeing a person on the moon filled me with enough optimism that I, at age 11, could temporarily forget the dread of being drafted and possibly killed in Vietnam.”
Salt Lake City resident Jody Kraft was moving with her family from Wisconsin to Colorado. They stopped in Lincoln, Neb., at a friend’s house, where they watched the moonwalk on a black-and-white set.
Kassie Mitchel Clarke, who lives in Brigham City, was attending summer classes at the University of Utah. “We watched it in the basement of Van Cott Hall,” she said.
Ben Williams of Salt Lake City was “18 years old, huddled around the TV set with family” in Garden Grove, Calif.
Of course, watching earthlings land on the moon was an international phenomenon.
“I was a 9-year-old kid in Sundhausen, Thuringia, East Germany, watching it in the middle of the night with my family on West German TV,” Lothar Gulia, of Salt Lake City, wrote. “One of the most memorable events.”
Mona Burton of Salt Lake City wasn’t in front of a TV but still vividly remembers the occasion.
“We were driving home from a family trip and listening to it on the radio,” she told The Tribune on Facebook. “By the time we got to our house, they were just about to land on the moon. We were afraid we would miss it if we got out of the car and went into the house to turn on the TV, so we all just stayed in the car and listened to it on the radio.”
Seth Jarvis, the current director of Clark Planetarium, said to truly grasp the significance of the Apollo 11 lunar launch and landing, one must also understand the era in which it occurred.
It was the summer of 1969 and the country was in a state of social unrest after the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr. The Vietnam War was heating up and riots had gone down at the Democratic Nation Convention in Chicago.
In the middle of all that, Jarvis said, “NASA gave us superheroes.” There was no need to buy Marvel comic books, because “the astronauts were the real-life embodiment of the adventurous, wholesome future we wanted and craved.”
Jarvis, who was 14 in 1969 and “a lover of all things space,” said he recently had built his own telescope. It was rudimentary, he conceded, “but it worked, and it was mine."
On July 20, a Sunday evening, the young Jarvis took the telescope to the front lawn and pointed it at the heavens. “To see the moon and know it’s in outer space and there are guys there right now,” he recalled. “It made a huge impression.”
After working 30 years at the planetarium — he started as an usher — Jarvis will retire at the end of July. Instead of coasting to the finish line, he has been busy with the Apollo 11 anniversary.
But he doesn’t mind.
“There’s a bit of satisfaction,” he said, “knowing that my last month on the job is spent celebrating this historical and powerful event.”
Logan resident Liz Butcher was too young to remember the actual moon landing but still has a strong connection.
“I was in Framingham, Massachusetts. Unbeknownst to me, my dad worked at MIT. He helped to build the electronics that ran the rocket. I was really young and had no idea what he did,” she said. “He is my hero to this day.”
Connie Crocker Axt, who lives in Connecticut, had a similar behind-the-scenes memory. “I was newly married and living in Baltimore and working for Bendix Field Engineering as a craftsman. We were under contract to NASA, and we did the projected flight schedule for the moon landing. After the successful mission, I was given the privilege of Leroy Lettering certificates for everyone at Bendix who worked on the Apollo mission. July 20, 1969.”
Winford “Dub” Bludworth of Salt Lake City never forgets where he was that day. He and younger brother Harry — they were 28 and 18, respectively, at the time — were camped on Bench Peak and the first two people to officially scale the highest peak on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska.
As they savored their accomplishment, they couldn’t help but look skyward. They had watched earlier in the week as Apollo 11 had soared into the sky.
“We wondered how things were going on the moon,”Bludworth said during a telephone interview. It wasn’t until after the two brothers had made the trek down the 5,500-foot peak the next day that they heard the international news.
For the next five decades, the Bludworth brothers have used this piece of historical trivia to stump family and friends.
“I always ask people the significance of July 20 and most people can’t think of what it is,” Bludworth said. “But I have a good memory of it.”