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Illustrations by Nancy Liang.
At the dawn of the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy promised America the moon. In 1969, NASA delivered. Even now, five decades later, footage from the Apollo 11 mission seems surreal: Men in spacesuits ambling along the moon’s surface, the first humans to accomplish that heady feat. It’s dreamy, awe-inspiring imagery.
Certain moments are etched in our memories with indelible ink. For some, the moon landing ranks among them. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first manned mission to our lunar neighbor, we asked Lily readers to recount their memories of July 20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the moon.
Here are 10 women’s recollections of what Armstrong called “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“Fresh graduates from high school, my boyfriend and I sat in my parents’ living room watching with my two youngest sisters. No one spoke; what was there to say? Silence, tears, drawn breath — we were mesmerized.
That boyfriend, Rob, and I married three years later. We’re still married, still mesmerized; Rob became an astrophysicist. The moon landing changed how we see our very small island, Earth, within the vastness of the universe.”
“I was in the Peace Corps in 1969, living in a small port town on the east coast of Venezuela. The priest had one of the only televisions in town, and we decided to make a party out of the moon landing. Our first challenge was to find enough extension cords to stretch into the church yard so we could move the TV into an open space large enough to accommodate much of the town’s population. We were able to do so by borrowing every last extension cord in town. I clearly remember sitting in the church yard with scores of folks staring at a wavy black-and-white picture on a 16-inch TV, watching Neil Armstrong take that first step onto the surface of the moon.
I looked around at the townspeople surrounding me: I saw kids and their parents who had ridden donkeys from small villages nearby, as well as elderly women with tears in their eyes. The town was silent with amazement. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my young life.”
“I was 9 and watched it on the TV. We were all glued to the TV, me especially — this inspired my love of science and science fiction, which has lasted throughout my life. The optimism of the era was palpable.”
“My husband and I were camping in Glacier National Park, Montana, on our honeymoon. We were sitting outside, gazing at the moon, when people in a camper nearby tuned their television to the broadcast of the moon landing. Listening to Neil Armstrong’s words while looking at the moon from the Rockies, on our honeymoon, was an unforgettable experience.”
“I was in my bedroom when my dad yelled for me to come watch the landing on TV. As I ran down the hall, I hit my hand against a door jamb.
That indicated to me just how important the moment was — my dad wouldn’t take me to the emergency room until after the landing was complete. But my memory of the awe has always been tinged with a twinge of pain.”
“I was spending the summer in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with my then-boyfriend, Jim Newton (RIP), taking classes at a Jesuit research center. We went to a local bar to watch the moon landing. Jim and I had both been part of the Columbia 1968 student movement; we were fervently against involvement in Vietnam, the U.S. history of intervention in Latin America and our country’s treatment of minorities. In short, we were ashamed to be Americans.
As the moonwalk came on the black-and-white bar television, a crowd of Mexicans ran up and embraced us, congratulating us on the moon landing, simply because we were Americans — a fact that we were trying to forget.”
“I was on the freeway, heading home to Detroit after spending my 19th birthday in Chicago, when Apollo 11 landed. The entire freeway stopped: Everyone just stopped in place and turned off their car engines. There was a jubilant atmosphere that we all shared; we felt pride in our country as we all listened on our car radios.”
“I was 16, about to enter my senior year in high school. I remember standing in the kitchen of our home in Mobile, Ala., my ear to the door, eavesdropping on my parents and their church friends, who were debating all sorts of sensitive issues over dinner — the new mandated busing law, the ‘carpetbaggers’ forcing us Southerners to integrate and the recent moon landing. After John Glenn’s orbit of the earth, my father, an Air Force pilot, had set his sights on becoming an astronaut but was grounded shortly thereafter because of a heart attack. That evening, as he explained the ins and outs of the moon landing, I could hear the grave disappointment in his voice. He had always been my hero, and I was devastated for him.”
“My mom, brother, sister and I watched the landing with my great-grandparents on their black-and-white TV.
Pa, born in 1889, and my great-grandmother had moved to Texas from Oklahoma in a covered wagon. Now, men were landing on the moon.”
“I was 11 at the time. ‘The Major Mudd Show,’ a local children’s show, aired the moon landing. I was very inspired by all the movements of the ’60s, including women’s liberation and space exploration. After I saw the first man walk on the moon, I turned to my mother and told her that I wanted to be the first woman to walk on the moon. I have always been very proud of my 11-year-old self for having that dream. Hopefully, they will send a woman next time.”
A female astronaut has not yet stepped foot on the moon, but women’s contributions have made space exploration possible. Black women, referred to as “computers” before electronic processors were available, performed mathematical calculations critical to early space missions. Trailblazing mathematician Katherine Johnson, who turned 100 last year and just released an autobiography for young readers, crunched numbers by hand to confirm the accuracy of electronic computer-generated orbital equations ahead of John Glenn’s 1962 spaceflight around the Earth. Johnson also helped calculate when and where to launch the rocket that propelled the Apollo 11 mission.
A new NASA program named Artemis — the Greek goddess was the twin sister of Apollo — aims to send Americans back to the moon by 2024.
President Trump pushed for the 2024 deadline, but due to a cluster of financial, political and technological concerns, some experts doubt that NASA will be able to pull off the mission by that time.
“As the Apollo program showed, humans have the ability to make great technical strides in a short period of time if everyone gets behind a mission,” Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of the Atlanta-based space consulting firm Astralytical, told NBC News. “However, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if NASA slipped the date by a few years.”
Still, the idea of Artemis is stirring.“When the last person walked the moon in 1972, there was no opportunity for a woman to participate,” wrote Janet L. Kavandi in an opinion piece for USA Today. “The Artemis Generation changes that. Our nation must take the next giant leap so long promised. As a female astronaut, I followed pioneers like Sally Ride to space and helped solidify their gains. Women’s next frontier will be the moon.”