Eric Reguly is The Globe and Mail’s European bureau chief
Watching the liftoff of Apollo 11 – the moonshot – was one of my earliest memories. But I wasn’t watching it on TV. I was at Cape Kennedy, in the spectator stands with my sisters and my mother, covering our ears, terrified as 7.7-million pounds of thrust from the mighty Saturn V rockets shook the earth and nearly deafened us.
I remember it as if were yesterday. I was 11 and we were living in Chevy Chase, Md. My late father, Robert (Bob) Reguly, was the Washington bureau chief of the Toronto Star. In between covering the Vietnam War, the race riots and the political assassinations – he was a few metres from Bobby Kennedy when the senator was gunned down in Los Angeles in the 1968 election – he was writing about the Apollo program.
I guess you could call us an Apollo family. I can remember watching my father’s eyes light up when he talked about the project; he was a bit of a techie and knew a fair amount about flying machines. The margins of his notebooks were always littered with amazingly accurate drawings of planes and rockets.
We had arrived in Chevy Chase in 1966, when the American space program was still overshadowed by the Soviets', who, in 1961, were the first to put a man into orbit. Skepticism about the Americans’ ability to reach the moon rose alarmingly in February, 1967, when the launch rehearsal of the first Apollo ended in tragedy. Its three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee – were killed in a horrific fire in the command module just three weeks before the planned launch.
I remember my mother, Ada, then 32, watching news stories about the fire. She was in our den, wearing a pretty green dress, weeping. At that point, I was too young to understand the significance of the setback. But it only seemed to redouble NASA’s efforts. Two and a half years later, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was ready to go. Richard Nixon was in the White House, the Vietnam War and the covert bombing of Cambodia were in full swing and Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine was topping the charts.
My father flew us all to Orlando, just outside of Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral). Neither my mother nor I know the name of the hotel but it must have been pretty nice. It was near the beach. Norman Mailer was in the room directly across from us – “Anyone who was anyone was there,” she told me a few weeks ago – and I met him one day in the surf. I was swimming with my father and there he was, cooling down on a blisteringly hot day. My father, about the most affable guy you would ever meet, waded over to talk (just a year later, Mailer would publish his superb MoonFire: The Epic Story of Apollo 11).
I also remember meeting Charles Lindbergh, the aviation legend, then in his late 60s, who became an instant global celebrity in 1927 when he made the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Being an airplane nut myself, I knew who he was but never got a chance to talk to him. Today, I wonder what he was thinking as Apollo 11 sailed over the Atlantic on its way to the moon, only 42 years after his own pioneering fight.
Mom, my sisters Susan and Rebecca and I were not allowed into the media stands near to the launch site. But we were not far behind. Fifty years later, my memories of the liftoff were virtually identical to my mother’s. We both remember a bright flash of orange in the distance – the rocket engines’ flames – then great billowing clouds of what looked like white smoke – in fact, vapour from the water used to cool the launch pad.
For a few seconds, we heard nothing except the crowd chanting “Go, go” as the rocket strained to free itself from the launch pad. Then it hit: The wall of noise, shaking everything. “The noise was just enormous,” my mother says. “You felt you were enveloped in it. It was scary.”
The noise must have been terrifying for the kids younger than me; I was thrilled by it. What happened, or didn’t happen, next astonishes me to this day. I do not remember raucous cheering and clapping, football-stadium-style, as Apollo 11 soared away, piercing the light clouds. All I remember was silence, as if the crowd was dumbstruck by the sheer majesty of the event. It was the greatest technological achievement of the era, maybe of all time. “I was so proud of the Americans,” Mom says. “It was an unbelievable accomplishment. Even to this day, the fact that someone could get to the moon is just incredible to me.”
After the launch, Dad went with the media pack to NASA’s mission control centre in Houston while the rest of the family had a beach holiday. At 10:56 p.m. Eastern Time on July 20, Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon. A few minutes later, Buzz Aldrin did, too. Watching from Houston, my father wrote: “Like kids at Christmas who couldn’t wait for morning, two Americans romped across the face of the moon last night and into the hearts of the 600 million who watched them do it.”
To this day, I am utterly amazed by the scientific and political daring of the effort. John F. Kennedy had used a rousing speech in 1962 to vow to land a man on the moon by the close of the decade. Imagine going from the first powered flight in 1903 to a moon landing in 66 years – less than the average lifetime. The feat was all the more remarkable when you consider that NASA’s computers at the time had less collective data power than a single modern smartphone.
For decades after the launch, I didn’t much think about the Apollo rockets. The last moonshot – Apollo 17 – was in 1972 and the whole project faded away, as if it never happened. I don’t think the moon program should be revived. Why? Partly because we have pressing concerns on Earth. If there is to be a mass scientific crusade on the level of Apollo, it would be better directed at finding technologies to remove the existential threat posed by radical climate change. But that’s not all. We know what’s on the moon – nothing. A new Apollo program would not be a voyage of discovery. It would not stir the imagination like the old one. It would not unite America, and the world, as Apollo 11 did. It would just be technology without heart or spirit.