Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Tet and My Lai. Amid turmoil, moon landing united a nation.
Still reeling from the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the violent Democratic convention in Chicago, racial struggles, riots, Cold War fears, the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre and the escalating national divide about our war in Vietnam, we staggered into 1969 longing for something to brighten the mood and bring America together.
Putting a man on the moon was the answer.
"I think it was a great thing for the United States," says Jim Gibbons, a Marengo historian who is busy these days giving his "Apollo 11 Moon Landing" presentation to suburban libraries and civic organizations.
A year after Chicago streets were clogged with protesters, police officers and ugly images of violence, LaSalle Street was packed as Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, fresh from the moon-landing mission, rode in a convertible and were showered with ticker tape, confetti and the roar from an adoring crowd.
"It was a total turnaround," Gibbons says. "They united the city. They united the whole country."
The moon landing was the highlight in a year filled with memorable events -- the riots after police raided the Stonewall Inn gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village on June 28; the July 24 conviction of boxing champion Muhammad Ali for refusing to be inducted into the Army; the July 18 death of Mary Jo Kopechne after Sen. Ted Kennedy's car plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts; the grisly murders of eight people by the "family" of Charles Manson in August; the spectacle of nearly a half-million people showing up at a farm in upstate New York in August to take in the Woodstock music festival; and the joyous summer of the '69 Chicago Cubs.
"If we can put a man on the moon, surely the Cubs can win the World Series," fans thought on July 20 of that year as the first-place Cubs swept a doubleheader against the Phillies in Philadelphia hours before Armstrong took his first lunar step. It would be another 37 years before the Cubs reached those heights.
As the 1950s were coming to an end, the Cold War tensions were rising. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, into space. The best the United States could manage was television sitcom character Ralph Kramden threatening his wife, Alice, with, "One of these days! Bang! Zoom! You're going to the moon."
President Eisenhower responded to the Soviet breakthrough in space by signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created NASA, on July 29, 1958, Gibbons says. He notes that Eisenhower's interstate highways were also seen as a way to better move military equipment and personnel if World War III broke out.
The Cold War added a chill to the summer of '68. On the day of the moon landing, the No. 1 song in American was "In the Year 2525," a bleak prediction of the end of humanity by the one-hit wonders Zager and Evans.
This newspaper expanded our front-page moon coverage by including a lighthearted, hometown story under the headline, "Cat Has 'Moon Kittens,'" explaining in great detail how a Palatine family watched TV coverage of the Apollo 11 module landing on the lunar surface at the same moment they watched their cat, "Blackie," give birth to three kittens on the couch. The family named the kittens Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.
My sister Sally, about to start her senior year of high school, watched the moon landing on the television we rolled from the kitchen to the living room so we wouldn't miss a thing. She salvaged a century-old piece of wood from our barn and painted a scene of Armstrong standing on the moon next to the U.S. flag, with Earth in the background and the words, "One small step for man, ONE GIANT LEAP for mankind. Moon 1969."
An estimated 650 million people watched the moon landing, except in the Soviet Union and China, where it was not broadcast.
"America's successful moon landing should be the steppingstone to even more adventures in outer space," concluded our story capturing the opinions of random shoppers at Randhurst Center in Mount Prospect. Although a few pondered whether the moon mission was worth the cost.
"If we have found something of value besides just going to the moon, then I think we should continue," an unidentified Mount Prospect woman said. "If the program turns out to be a waste, then I think we should spend our time doing something down here."
Some tempered the enthusiasm of putting a man on the moon by noting that we were still sending young Americans to their death in Vietnam, hadn't figured out a way to put an end to hunger and poverty, and continued to pollute and trash our planet.
But at least for a few hours, we came together to watch an event that still has the power to amaze, a half-century later. We landed men on the moon.
Apollo 11 historian at Schaumburg libraryWhat: Historian Jim Gibbons on Apollo 11
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Schaumburg Township District Library, 130 South Roselle Road, Schaumburg
Details: Visit jimgibbonshistorian.com orschaumburglibrary.org