A boomer’s special place to watch man’s first steps on the moon

As baby boomers, almost all of us are old enough to remember where we were when Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon. But few are likely to have a memory as unique as that of BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs. As he writes in this adapted excerpt from the new book “1969: Are You Still Listening?”, Dobbs that day was in the most excited town in the most excited nation in the world. But it was a highlight of the space program that was never again to be matched.

In May of 1969, I got a five-month job as a temporary field producer for ABC Television News. It was called a “summer replacement” position, to fill in for full-time producers taking their vacations. I was barely qualified, but the news business was still in an era of full employment and having been an intern in a San Francisco newsroom while attending the University of California at Berkeley, I was the best they could get for a job that was scheduled to expire.

What a lucky break… especially since it led to a job as a full-time producer for ABC News, and a few years later, two decades as a correspondent, with assignments all over the nation and all around the world, none of which I would trade. In ’69 of course, fresh out of grad school, I couldn’t see any of that coming. Yet it opened the door to undertakings in that Summer of ’69 like a very special trip to a town called Wapakoneta, Ohio.

That might not strike you as special until you learn, Wapakoneta was the home town of Neil Armstrong, the first human to step on the moon. On July 20, 1969, we would broadcast live from Wapakoneta, and I got to help produce the program. If people clear across this planet were excited about America’s moon landing that day, no nation was more excited than ours, and within the United States, no community was more excited than Wapakoneta.

Neil Armstrong’s hometown newspaper 50 years ago.

Sad to say though, looking back fifty years later, that day in 1969 probably was both the first and the last time we all really came together, citizens on every continent struck with a single sense of awe. Today, between irreparable gaps in people’s opportunities and irreconcilable forms of religious extremism, great advances in technology are as easily abused and sometimes condemned as they are appreciated.

In the latter years of my television career, NASA came back into play. I had become an anchor and senior correspondent (along with Dan Rather) for an all-high-definition television network called HDNet (which since has morphed into AXS TV). And when NASA asked HDNet for some technical help documenting every detail of every space shuttle launch after the catastrophe with shuttle Columbia, the network’s founder Mark Cuban said yes, and decided to take it up a step and do a live broadcast for our audience from the Kennedy Space Center of every subsequent launch. I was tapped to anchor those hour-and-a-half shows.

Greg anchors launch of a NASA shuttle live on HDNet.

We broadcast about 35 more flights from Florida before the shuttle program ended, and I wouldn’t trade a single one. Every launch was somehow unique: a different time of day or night, a different sky in the background, a different threat from weather, a different malfunction from the ship’s two million parts, a different crew in the orbiter, a different trajectory, sometimes a different mission. I was struck every time— and frankly, I hope this came across on the air— with a sense of admiration for the audacity of the astronauts, a sense of awe for the brainpower of the engineers and scientists behind them, and a sense of patriotism that it was my country, my people, who were shooting for the stars. Man was meant to explore; America was the unrivaled pioneer in the cosmos.

Man’s first footprint on the moon. July 20, 1969.

But how much did the public care? After the first exceptional achievements in space, not so much. The head of one of the biggest private corporations in the space business told me during one broadcast from Florida that he was having trouble attracting bright minds to work in the space sector. It wasn’t exciting any more. It was old news.

And today’s attitude? Space is too costly. Space is too competitive. Our leaders talk more about space as a platform for weapons than as a platform for exploration.

“Let the past remind us of what we are not now?” Some days, I’d rather not be reminded.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Gregg for an insightful and illuminating piece.
    I have always been interested because because the moon landing was on my 19th Birthday, July 20, 1969. And as my last name Mondschein, means moonlight in German, it just added to my personal connection to that auspicious achievement. In some ways I wonder if the actual achievements of that day were over shadowed by the TV series Star Trek. Here we were watching mankind actually land on the moon, but as young people we were already engaged in traveling at warp speed to other galaxies each week from 1966-69 listening to : “Space the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Today of course it has been correctly modified to state “where no one has gone before.” I hope we again realize the import to all of humanity of space exploration. Not only to discover what lies beyond, but to help us understand what we have right here on a relatively small innocuous planet we call earth. Thanks again!

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