When astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon 50 summers ago, some Atlantans awaited updates at the Fernbank Science Center, where the observatory’s big telescope was trained on the landing spot for Apollo 11’s lunar landing craft.
Across town, an electronic signboard outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium proclaimed, “Armstrong and Aldrin have landed ‘Eagle’ on the Moon.”
Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin was the second human to walk on the moon. The Eagle was the name given to the lunar module that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon and back again to the orbiting Apollo 11 spacecraft piloted by the mission’s third astronaut, Michael Collins. The command module was nicknamed Columbia.
The moon landing on July 20, 1969, a Sunday, was the biggest headline in The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution for days before and after. “MEN WALK ON MOON,” The Constitution headline declared the next morning in red letters. The Journal, which published afternoon editions, reported on the “Shining Hours as Eagle Soars.” Another headline said, “Folks Comb Dictionary To Tell How They Felt.” A common word, the newspaper reported, was “fantastic.”
At Fernbank Science Center, east of downtown Atlanta, astronomer Paul Knappenberger said “the scientists at Fernbank were ‘quite excited’ about the moon landing.” The Constitution’s Frank Wells reported, “proving them no different from the rest of America.”
Crowds of up to 1,000 gathered that day outside the science center to hear updates on the moon mission, the newspaper said.
> AJC COMMEMORATIVE COVERAGE: Coming in Saturday’s newspaper- celebrating the moment when U.S. astronauts became the first men to set foot on the moon.
The astronomers apparently couldn’t see much. The Atlanta-based telescopes could not see the landing craft, but they did record “a blip of light” when the main spaceship crossed the line on the moon’s surface between sunlight and darkness as it orbited the moon. “We could see the crossing through the telescope. It was just a blip of light,” Knappenberger told the newspaper. “After we process the tape, it won’t be anything that will knock you in the eye, but there it is.”
The bigger show was on television. A feed from the moon provided by NASA on Sunday night for a nationwide audience showed a grainy live image of Armstrong’s descent by ladder from the landing craft, his first tentative step and his famous declaration that his small step was a “giant leap for mankind.”
Atlanta, like much of the nation, was focused on little else during that first moon walk. For at least 30 minutes that Sunday night, The Constitution noted, "the streets and expressways were virtually abandoned," and police said no major crimes were reported. "Man's first steps on the Moon Sunday did what no other act of man has done in many a year," the newspaper reported. "It cleared the traffic from Atlanta's streets."
After the landing and historic walk on the moon, the attention turned to bringing the astronauts back to earth safely, starting with the first-ever liftoff from the moon. The final edition of the July 21 Atlanta Journal reported that moment with a headline, “THEY’RE OFF!” And Rich’s department store took out a full page ad in the newspaper to mark the achievement.
The Constitution’s front page from Monday morning, July 21, was marked as a "souvenir extra" with a headline, “MEN WALK ON MOON” above a photo of Armstrong and Aldrin on the lunar surface the night before. The accompanying story by Atlanta reporter Jeff Nesmith was datelined SPACE CENTER, Houston and began:
"Man landed on the moon Sunday at 4:17 p.m. Atlanta time.
"And within seven hours, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin were seen via television throughout the world as they first timidly, then almost playfully, walked about the strange new world for more than two hours. Armstrong stepped onto the surface at 10:56 p.m.
"The two space explorers deployed a portable television camera about 40 feet from their idle lunar module landing craft and stood before it to plant the American flag in the moon's surface.
"Armstrong's first words on landing his spaceship on the moon — ‘The Eagle has landed’ — and his summation as he became the first man to set foot on the moon -- ‘One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind’ joined the great quotes of throughout history."
In the Monday afternoon editions, Atlanta Journal writers John Pennington and Phil Garner noted that Armstrong stepped first with "his white-booted left foot in the moondust.” Armstrong "spent two hours and 13 minutes in his moon walk. Aldrin was on the surface an hour and 45 minutes," they wrote.
"The world watched a live telecast of the historic step taken by Armstrong from the ladder of the lunar module to the surface of the moon.
"The tiny TV camera also photographed Aldrin's first step onto the lunar surface, recorded the unveiling of a plaque attesting that the astronauts ... 'came in peace for all mankind,' the raising of an American flag, the collection of moon samples and the placing of experiment packages.
"The moon explorers bounded about in the faint, pure sunlight, pitched slightly forward to compensate for their heavy back packs and virtually floating over the sandy surface in one-sixth the gravitational pull of earth.
"At the end of their explorations they stowed equipment and re-entered the tiny spaceship, to become the first men to spend the night on the moon."
"Armstrong's first words from Moon," Atlanta Journal, July 21, 1969.
"HOUSTON -- Neil Armstrong dangled one foot toward the lunar surface. ‘I'm going to step off the LEM now,’ he said. Cautiously he let himself down, then uttered man's long-awaited first words from the moon. ‘That's one small step for man,’ he said. ‘One giant leap for mankind.’"
The newspaper’s advertisers also celebrated the mission.
The Journal published a full-page ad from Rich’s department store, in black and white, depicting the moon on a field of stars with the message:
"Today there is life on the moon. Men and a symbolic Eagle. The lunar module caspsules [sic] our contemporary Odyssey, its spirit of adventure balanced by a quest for knowledge. With great pride we hail the men, the spirit, the quest.
—Rich's. Atlanta born. Atlanta owned. Atlanta managed."
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