Many people sat frozen in front of television sets on a summer day in July, 50 years ago. It was an historic day when one step for a man became a “giant leap for mankind.”
With the help of a few in space and dozens at mission control in Houston, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon for the first time.
Coats attorney Joe Tart was a new college graduate living in the Coats area the day it happened. He said he remembers people scrambling to find a color television to watch the event, even though all of the footage was black and white.
“That was a big deal to watch it on a color television even if the footage was still black and white,” Tart said. “All we knew was that it was a special thing. We were all glued to the television, it was quite a feeling.”
The event left Tart with a lifetime love of the space program. He maintains a collection of newspaper clippings from the Apollo era and is proud to say he has a friend who had some first achievements in space as well.
Dr. William Thornton was the first North Carolina astronaut to break Earth’s orbit in the NASA Space Shuttle program’s 17th flight. He was responsible for the first animal payload (two squirrel monkeys and 24 rats) in a manned flight. He was also among the first crew to fly to space with a fully-operational Spacelab module, used in medical investigations during the week-long mission in 1985. That mission, in the Challenger, accomplished 110 orbits of the Earth, 2.9 million miles, in 169 hours and 39 minutes
Thornton’s space shuttle flight suit is on display in the Coats Museum.
‘First step into history’
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, who lives in Lillington, remembers the day like almost everyone else who was alive at the time.
“I, like most Americans, was mesmerized and glued to TV watching as Astronaut Neil Armstrong made the first step into history,” Etheridge said. “What a great time of unity, pride and hope in the future.”
Retired Campbell University Librarian Ronnie Faulkner related the entire moon saga to literature.
“Being a sci-fi buff, I viewed it at the time as Jules Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ novel coming true,” Faulkner said.
He also remembers seeing the event firsthand, after getting to the nearest television set.
“I remember this very well,” Faulkner said. “I was 16 and had a small black-and-white TV in my bedroom that I had purchased with money from working in tobacco. I was very excited and started watching at about 4 p.m. and continued through 11, well past my usual bedtime, in order to see Neil Armstrong step onto the moon and say his famous line.”
Si Harrington of Erwin was newly married, and had different reactions as he watched the unfolding moon saga on television.
“Part of me wasn’t surprised because they were able to get to the moon because they were doing so much at the time. I kind of figured they would get there, eventually,” Harrington said.
He also joined others in celebrating the accomplishment.
“It was definitely a milestone for our space program when they put that first footprint on the moon,” Harrington said.
He also remembered watching it with his grandfather.
“He was born in 1895, so to him it was just inconceivable,” Harrington said. “He couldn’t believe a man could fly, much less go to the moon.”