Area residents recall historic day that man stepped on moon

In this July 16, 1969 photo made available by NASA, the 363-feet Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew, launches from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA via AP)

But would they return?

That was among the many emotions, thoughts and concerns of local people who watched the historic first moon landing of Apollo 11 50 years ago today — July 20, 1969 — as it was broadcast in grainy black-and-white images on television sets across the nation.

Many recalled gathering with family to watch the event and hoping for nothing but success.

Mark Murawski of Williamsport was 6 years old at the time of the moon landing but remembers it nonetheless.

“It was a pretty big deal for our family,” he said. “Like most people, we were limited to the TV set and it was very exciting, but a lot of people were apprehensive. They weren’t sure if (the astronauts) were coming back or not. I remember that, of all of the emotions.”

Entering lunar orbit on July 19, 1969, the lunar module Eagle was manned by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin as it touched down the next day on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.

“The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong radioed to NASA’s Mission Control in Houston as a third astronaut, Michael Collins, piloted the command module and remained in orbit while the others were on the surface of the moon.

“When they landed safely, it was like a total victory,” Murawski recalled.

Hours would pass before Armstrong would emerge from the module and become the first man to step foot on the moon, saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Space flight was the sort of thing that could easily captivate a young boy, recalled Murawski, who said the Apollo program became one of his great interests.

“It was a time when I was studying the different rocket ships and I had different models from the first Mercury to the latest Apollo model. I would keep them in my bedroom and my dad encouraged that I study up on space travel,” he said. “I probably would not have been interested in space travel if it weren’t for the Apollo mission. It was a real-world thing to a 6-year-old.”

Phyllis Green of Williamsport was immersed in the filming of the moon landing and remembers the day and the feeling she had when watching it finally take place.

“I think I called off work to watch it,” she said. “There were a lot of people there to watch it in Florida — I wish I could have been there. I think everyone was praying that it would go up and stay up. At least that’s what I was doing. It was an excitement that you can’t explain.”

Local resident Kay Huffman recalled watching the event unfold.

“I remember watching it on TV,” she said. “It was very, very exciting and unbelievable that they could do this. I remember, on my TV set, (the picture) wasn’t very clear when they were walking down the steps.”

Dr. H. Paul Shuch, emeritus executive director of The SETI League Inc. and retired professor, had just gotten out of the Army and was living in Korea and working for a government agency at the time of the moon landing.

“I remember watching the moon landing on a small black and white TV in an office in a country that had just gotten television. We were all absolutely captivated,” he said.

Shuch has always been interested in aerospace as an electrical engineering major and later physics teacher. He said that 1961 was a critical time in his life and his goals became very clear to him.

“I put myself in space activity as soon as I was able to. I taught physics with an emphasis on the space program engineerings,” he said. “(The year) 1961 was a critical year of my life. I took my first flying lesson and President Kennedy made the goal to put a man on the moon by the end of the century. My goals became clear to me. I knew at that point I was going to become an engineer, an astronaut, and win a Nobel Prize. It was an inspirational time for me.”

Richard Erickson, associate professor of astronomy and physics at Lycoming College, said he doesn’t remember much about the mission during that time, but feels that the mission gave much more information about the moon that they had not had before.

“I was a graduate student in southern Wisconsin. My wife and I were watching it on TV late at night. It was impressive, but I am not sure I remember much more of it,” he said. “It certainly gave us knowledge about the moon and more information about how the moon formed from the Earth.”

His colleague and fellow spaceflight enthusiast, Dr. David G. Fisher, professor of physics and astronomy, was just 14 at the time of the moon landing and has always had a great interest in space flight.

“I grew up with an interest in science by virtue of following the news coverage of space flight,” he said. “I was following everything. Most of the time I was going to my grandparents because they had a color TV. My whole family gathered to watch the moon landing and my grandfather was asleep. I was wondering, ‘How could you fall asleep during this?'”

Apollo 11 was the culmination of eight years of what the nation had been striving for, recalled Fisher, who later became part of an international team of about two dozen people who took the original transcription of digital recordings of the words spoken on the mission and corrected the mistakes that were made when it was first done.

“At that time, they didn’t necessarily understand the special terms,” he said. “There were some interesting mistakes.”