Saturday, July 20, 2019

The 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Apollo 11 crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and
Buzz Aldrin
It was fifty years ago today that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon. It had only been eight years earlier that President John F. Kennedy proposed before Congress that the United States "...should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. " It was only in 1962 that John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Apollo 11 was not simply a remarkable achievement, but one of the greatest achievements in the history of humanity.

As might be expected, Apollo 11 would have a lasting impact on popular culture, although in many instances it was not immediately felt after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. It was after John Glenn had circled the earth on the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission that the United States (and to some degree other countries as well) became swept up in a space craze. While Tang had been manufactured since 1959, sales soared after its use in the Mercury and Gemini missions. Tang capitalised on its link to the space programme well into the Seventies. There were other spaced themed food products on the market in the Sixties that had no connection to NASA. . In 1965 Quaker Oats introduced a cereal with a space age theme. The spokesman for Quisp was was an alien with a propeller atop his head, named, appropriately, Quisp. There were numerous space-oriented toys on the market in the Sixties, from Mattel's "Matt Mason" action figures to RCA Victor's Astronaut Space Helmet.

Television fully embraced the Space Race. Sitcoms from Gilligan's Island to Bewitched featured episodes that touched upon space in some way. Space played a central role in My Favorite Martian, as well as I Dream of Jeannie (Jeannie's master was a NASA astronaut named Tony Nelson). There were space-oriented science fiction shows such as Lost in Space and Star Trek. It was not long before and shortly after the Apollo 11 mission that there were several space-themed movies, including Countdown (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Doppelgänger (1969--now better known by its American title, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), Moon Zero Two (1969), Marooned (1969), and Silent Running (1972).

As surprising as it might seem, Apollo 11 actually marked the end of the Sixties space craze. Public interest in the space programme waned once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had set foot on the moon. The television audience for the further Apollo missions would decline over time. That having been said, Apollo 11 did prove to be a merchandising bonanza, with a wide array of products capitalising on the event both shortly before and after the mission. Among the best remembered products released in the wake of Apollo 11 was a booklet titled Journey to the Moon 1969 published by Tandy Corporation less than two months after the lunar landing. MGM Records released a commemorative record, First Man on the Moon, narrated by Hugh Downs. Saalfiend put out an Apollo Man on the Moon colouring book, while Milton Bradley published an Astronauts of Apollo 11 jigsaw puzzle.

Some products seeking to capitalise on Apollo 11 were more unusual than others. Tom Sims Kentucky Bourbon came out with an Apollo Space Capsule decanter (manufactured by McCoy Pottery). Marathon gas stations released a series of commemorative Libbey juice glasses featuring the Apollo 11, 12, 13, and 14 missions. In 1970 Avon manufactured what they called Moon Flight: the Game, which was basically a bottle of shampoo in the shape of the Apollo Command module and Lunar module. As might be expected, there were several toys on the market seeking to capitalise on the first mission to the moon's surface. Daishin Cogyo of Japan produced a battery operated toy Apollo 11 lunar module, while Blue Shield made a plastic toy Apollo Capsule. As might be expected, model manufacturers took advantage of Apollo 11. Revell produced an Apollo Spacecraft Model (with both the command module Columbia and the lunar module Eagle) and the Saturn V rocket, while Airfix produced an Apollo moon landing model kit.

Surprisingly enough, Apollo 11 would have very little immediate effect on music. Perhaps the song most associated with the space programme is David Bowie's "Space Oddity." The first versions of "Space Oddity" had been recorded as early as February 1969. The version that would appear on David Bowie's self-titled 1969 album David Bowie, as well as serve as the basis for the 1969 single, was recorded in June of that year. Mercury Records released the single to coincide with Apollo 11 on June 20 1969. That having been said, the BBC held off on playing "Space Oddity" until after the crew of Apollo 11 had safely returned. It proved to be a hit in the United Kingdom, reaching no. 5 on the singles chart. In the United States it stalled at no. 124.  The moon landing would inspire the Pink Floyd song "Moonhead," written in July 1969, but it has never been officially released. The only other song related to Apollo 11 that was released not long after the mission was The Byrds' "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins," which appeared on their 1969 album Ballad of Easy Rider.

As mentioned earlier, the American Space Craze of the Sixties declined after Apollo 11. While there were a good many space related movies released not long before and not long after Apollo 11, there weren't that many released in the years following the mission. Hammer Films' science fiction movie Moon Zero Two, released three months after Apollo 11, did acknowledge the mission. After the mission had taken place, dialogue referring to Neil Armstrong was added to the film, as was a scene involving a monument to Apollo 11 on the moon.

Beyond Moon Zero Two and the many documentaries made about the mission over the years (1971's Moonwalk One being one of the earliest), there would be very little acknowledgement of the mission in movies until well after it had taken place. Movies referencing Apollo 11 would become much more common in the Nineties. Pontiac Moon (1994) was set in 1969 and centred around a father and son who make a road trip to the fictional the Spires of the Moon National Park (perhaps based on Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve) even as Apollo 11 is taking place. A Walk on the Moon (1999) was also set in 1969 when the first moon landing was taking place. Apollo 11 played an even bigger role in the Australian film The Dish (2000). The Dish was a fictionalised account of the Parkes Observatory near Parkes, New South Wales, Australia. The Parkes Observatory had played a crucial role in relaying live television images of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. In the Naughts Apollo 11 would play an important role in the plot of Men in Black 3 (2012). Released just last year First Man (2018) is a biographical film following Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to Apollo 11, as well as the mission itself. Of course, it must be kept in mind that there are many more films that have referenced Apollo 11 in some way shape or form over the years.

With regards to television, the Seventies science fiction series Space: 1999, set on Moon Base Alpha, obviously owed some debt to Apollo 11. It seems likely that the Eagle spacecraft on the show were named for the lunar module, Eagle, used in Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong would also be referenced on the show. As strange as it might sound, Apollo 11 was also referenced in the Seventies science fiction show Battlestar Galactica. In the final episode of the series, "The Hand of God," Apollo and Starbuck narrowly miss picking up a transmission from the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

As might be expected, Apollo 11 would be referenced on further science fiction shows. Apollo 11 has been referenced on Doctor Who multiple times, and it would play a crucial role in the plot of the episode "Day of the Moon." Apollo 11 would also play a role in the Timeless episode "Space Race," in which the heroes must insure that the mission takes place. Apollo 11 has also played a role in period TV shows. The Mad Men episode "Waterloo" is set as the mission takes place, and Bert Cooper (long a fan of the American space program) dies immediately after watching the Apollo 11 lunar landing. The Astronaut's Wives Club was a mini-series following the lives of the wives of the Mercury Seven. Its final episode, "Landing," dealt with Apollo 11. There have been at least two TV movies dealing with Apollo 11: Apollo 11 in 1996 and Moonshot in 2009. Of course, here I have to point out that there have been many more television shows and TV movies that have touched upon Apollo 11 over the years.

I was six years old when Apollo 11 took place. It is the first historical event of global importance I can remember. I remember watching as the Eagle lunar module landed on the moon and the words "Tranquillity base here. The Eagle has landed." I remember watching as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I remember that night looking up at the moon to see if I could somehow see the lunar module on its surface. I am sure there were many young Gen Xers and older Baby Boomers like me for whom Apollo 11 was event television. It was in the fall of 1969 that my parents bought my brother and I Tandy's booklet Journey to the Moon 1969. I have remained fascinated by NASA and the American space program ever since.

The Apollo 11 mission was an incredible accomplishment and one which has no equals in the annals of history. While Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins would become famous forevermore for their achievement, Apollo 11 was the result of the work of thousands of people, from Katherine Johnson (who calculated the trajectory of Apollo 11 and many other early space missions to Gene Kranz (Flight Director of Mission Control for Apollo 11 and many other missions) to the many engineers, technicians, and scientists who made the trip to the moon possible. For those of us who were alive to see it, the Apollo 11 lunar landing is a memory we will never forget.

1 comment:

Dennis Bedard said...

Let's not forget the TV series Time Tunnel and Elton John's Rocket Man.