This primary SEAL assembly, written by Gerald Haigh, discusses the first landing on the Moon and compares the new beginning for mankind to pupils’ new beginnings next school year

On July 20th, 1969, first Neil Armstrong and then Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin stepped out on to the surface of the Moon. This summer many children, older students and teachers will take giant leaps of their own to new schools, university, and to the world of work.

Images from Apollo 11 are readily available, including on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website.

Forty years ago on 20th July, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, American astronauts, became the first men to do what before had only been a science fiction dream; they stepped out of a space craft on to the surface of the Moon after a four and a half day journey through space. It was an amazing moment. It was broadcast on TV all over the world – here’s a description from one of the five hundred million people across the world who watched on that July night.

Watching in the night
“It’s difficult now to explain just how unbelievable the whole Moon landing mission was. You see, before that, space travel was something in science fiction. There’d been books and stories about landing on the Moon ever since Victorian times, and in 1950, when I was a boy, there was a good film called ‘Destination Moon’, about a huge rocket that took off from America for the Moon. But that was just a story.

“My wife and I were staying at my parents’ home on the night of the first Moon landing with our two young daughters, who were five and three years old. We’d watched the TV coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, and we knew that during the night the astronauts would probably land on the Moon, but we didn’t stay up.

“However, I knew what I was going to do. I woke up in the middle of the night and crept into my parents’ living room and switched on the TV. And ‘click’, just there, before my eyes, were two men in spacesuits going about their work on the surface of the Moon. It was a breathtaking moment. What was so astonishing was the matter-of-factness of it. They had a job to do and they were doing it, busily going this way and that, in that slow bouncy way that humans do in the low gravity of the Moon. The TV picture wasn’t brilliant – it was black and white, and quite grainy – but there was no mistaking what was going on. Very soon we were shown a repeat of what I’d missed – the lunar module descending and landing, with Neil Armstrong’s words, ’Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed‘, followed by his climb down the ladder and his first step out on to the dusty surface – the first human being to stand somewhere else in our solar system. Then I heard his famous words, ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’

“I was enthralled, but soon I tore myself away from the TV and did what many people across the world did during those hours – I went outside and looked up at the moon, which was clear in the Yorkshire sky that night. In the quiet of the night I was overwhelmed by the thought that at that moment, as I looked up across a quarter of a million miles of space, two fellow human beings were walking on the Moon, who in their turn were able to turn their eyes to the distant Earth. The thought that they were many, many times further away from their homes and families than any human being had ever been made me shiver a little. There was no doubt, too, that despite their apparent calmness they were in very great danger throughout their mission. So I sent them a blessing and said a prayer quietly, as I expect millions of people did of many faiths and languages. The feeling was deeply moving and something of it returns to me even now when I look up at the Moon.

“I thought, too, of our little girls, sleeping − tired out by the day of hilarity and fun they’d had with their beloved grandfather, unaware really of just how momentous that night was. I thought of them stepping out into life, and I wondered what lay before them in the years to come – very soon there’d be school, new friends and new things to laugh and cry about.

“I thought of other changes in our family, too. My father had just retired after 52 years in the mining industry. I had just started a new job. And yet, as I looked up to where Neil and Buzz were having the greatest adventure of all, I realised that if they could deal with that, then we could certainly cope with whatever came our way down here on our own lovely blue and green planet.

“That was forty years ago, and there have been many changes since then. My father had twenty good years of retirement and now it’s our turn to enjoy the company of grandchildren. For myself and my own family there have been many steppings out into the unknown along the way − new jobs; new schools; leaving home to go to work and college. But even now, when I want to remind myself that nothing that faces us or comes our way is all that difficult in the greater scheme of things, I only have to think of that night and those grainy television pictures, or perhaps look up at the Moon herself, and a sense of proportion returns.”

Twelve men walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. Nine of them are still alive. All of them were deeply affected by the experience. Once you’ve walked on the Moon, after all, there’s nothing really left that can be as exciting.

No human being has been back to the Moon since those days. At the time nobody realised it would be like that – we all thought that the Apollo missions were the start of something, not the end. We thought that there were greater things to come – a permanent base on the Moon or regular missions to Mars. None of that has happened. There have been space missions, with the Shuttle, and the International Space Station, of course, but none of that seems the same somehow.

Now it’s another July, and many of you are facing your own ‘giant leap’, to new schools or new classes. Maybe there are changes coming at home, too – new jobs, new homes, maybe weddings, people leaving home to go to work or to college. We’ll keep all of those people, and all of you, in mind now.

A prayer
Lord, we remember today all those whose lives are about to change. We think of those who are leaving our school. We think of all of our families where there will be other changes, good or difficult, this summer. Give us all some of the courage and strength that the Apollo 11 astronauts found within themselves all those years ago.

The Apollo astronauts went into the unknown supported by friends, colleagues and families. All of you, when you go from here, take with you our love and the knowledge that you have what it takes to succeed.

Further information

  • All the facts of Apollo 11 and the other space missions are readily available. For example at Wikipedia and on the NASA site.
  • There is a child-friendly page at Kidport.
  • “Destination Moon” film. 1950. Clips on Youtube and details.
  • Effect on the Apollo astronauts’ lives – “Moondust; In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth”. By Andrew Smith. Bloomsbury 2005.
  • Early visualization of moon landing – H.G. Wells “The First Men in the Moon” 1901. Available complete online.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2009

About the author: Gerald Haigh