Column: The period in American history when astronauts were rock stars
1968 was an eventful year in our country. There have been race riots, as well as the Vietnam War.
In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. A few months later, Robert Kennedy, a former US senator, was shot dead in a hotel in Los Angeles. A few hours later he was dead.
The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of many upheavals. That fall, Richard Nixon will beat Hubert Humphrey for the presidency.
At the end of December 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first astronauts to leave Earth orbit and circle the moon. On Christmas Eve, as they circled the moon, the three astronauts read the first verses of Genesis, which talks about the creation of the earth by God.
Most people felt pretty good about it. Madelyn Murray O’Hair, an atheism activist, has filed a complaint against astronaut reading. She hit a brick wall in federal court.
Astronauts were rock stars in the years leading up to the moon landing on July 20, 1969. They have been featured on television, newspapers and magazines. They were young and beautiful and represented a new hope in the United States.
In 1984, I was hired to design a series of radio shows around the state with John Glenn, an astronaut who served in the United States Senate from Ohio and was the first man to orbit the Earth. I was accompanied by Jim Wood, who published a newspaper south of Atlanta.
We found out that Glenn couldn’t shake the image of an astronaut and become a national political candidate. Radio broadcasts were billed as call-in broadcasts, but most questions were submitted in advance. I found a handful of unused questions on notes. They dealt with issues as important as whether or not he felt dizzy in space, how he used the bathroom, and whether he really drank Tang.
In mid-1969, attention shifted to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who were said to be the first men to set foot on the dusty surface of the moon.
Despite the late hour, my mom parked me with my brother in front of our black and white TV. Coverage lasted for more than 46 hours, and most stations in the United States were set to one of three networks.
At that time, WSB-TV was the subsidiary of NBC. Its cover was anchored by Frank McGee and David Brinkley.
CBS had the authority Walter Cronkite. He was joined by former astronaut Walter “Wally” Schirra. ABC was hosted by Frank Reynolds and the network’s science editor Jules Bergman.
Cronkite was the right man. He had been named in the polls as America’s most trusted man. He was a reporter, having been on the ground in Europe during World War II. They had a lot of models that they would brandish and show how the lunar module, Eagle, would separate from the command module, Columbia.
“Houston, the Tranquility base here. The eagle has landed, ”Armstrong said.
Cronkite took off and sat down his large tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses.
“Say something Wally, I’m speechless,” he said.
His removal of his glasses was a lot like his gesture when he announced the death of President Kennedy.
It was one of those things that everyone seemed to have watched, and it sparked a period of good patriotic feelings. We needed it.
Looks like it was yesterday. For those of you who came after this time, it was a wonderful time in American history.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Weekend Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com.