Remembering the first lunar landing after 40 long years!

A.H. Jaffor Ullah

On July 20, 1969 when I was only 22 years old and living in ‘Dacca’, two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Jr. walked on the Moon surface. Only four days earlier on the wee hours of July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission’s rocket ship left the launch pad LC 39A at John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida heading towards the Moon. The rocket ship reached the Moon’s orbit in about 3 days. A day later, the much anticipated lunar landing took place.

This year thus marks the 40th anniversary when humans made their mark on the lunar dust. The science section of the NY Times on July 14, 2009 had the lead story entitled “Our Moon” in which many people of my age group, who flocked to the coastline of Florida to view firsthand the lift off of Apollo 11 mission, reminisced the seminal events of the day. Time surely passes by rather quickly. To me, it seems as if the event hardly took place few years ago.

The success of Apollo 11 mission was so huge that America’s prestige was enhanced many folds. I chose to apply for grad school in America simply because of this technical feat by America’s Space Agency, NASA. In the late 1960s, our world was right in the middle of the Cold War. The two super powers viz., America and the USSR (Soviet Union) were competing for domination not only on earth but also in the outer space. Even though the Soviet Union was the first nation to send a rocket ship, Sputnik, on outer space in October 1957, America was not exactly sitting idle. It almost became a prestige issue for America to compete head-to-head with Russia for domination in the outer space.

Barely four months after occupying the White House, President John F. Kennedy had expressed his desire to send astronauts to the moon by the end of the 1960s. During a speech given before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, he said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” His words were prophetic. However, Kennedy never lived to see this monumental feat achieved by American astronauts.

The Russians however were more interested in sending unmanned space vehicle to moon. Clearly, America as a nation beat the Soviet in the outer space. If I recall correctly, some of the Russian space vehicles under “Luna” mission faced the ignominy of accident on lunar surface. Now, contrast this failure of the Russians with the success Americans made by placing two astronauts on the moon’s surface and that was not all, the American Space Agency, NASA, brought them back safely to earth!

I was a graduate student at Dhaka’s Atomic Energy Center in Ramna in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. It was Sunday on July 20, 1969. On the next day, the entire city of ‘Dacca’ was abuzz with the news of 2 Americans landing on the moon. The young generation was too excited hearing the news. Many elders however were shocked hearing the news. Some folks simply pooh-poohed the news by saying “there is no proof that they really landed there.” This news of two Americans stepping on the Moon was too difficult to digest by many folks especially from the clerics. After all, the Muslim calendar is based on the Moon sighting. Some hard-core Mullahs in the erstwhile East Pakistan even offered their fatwa on moon landing by Americans. They believed it was a hoax of monumental proportion.

The US Information Service (USIS) wanted to take the full advantage of this technical feat by American astronauts. The agency received video tape of the lunar landing 2 days later in Dhaka. Thus, the government run TV station, which was the only game in town, showed the NASA’s footage on lunar landing in the TV. If my memory serves me right, it was on July 22, 1969 when the TV station in Dhaka showed the video in the afternoon. In those days Dhaka had barely few thousand TV sets; therefore, there was a mad rush to the house that had TV for viewing the rare footage of lunar landing.

My mother’s house in Tejkunipara had a Mitsubishi TV set; thus, at least 100 or more people from the neighborhood thronged to our small living room to watch these historic shots in a tiny 17 inch TV screen all in black and white, of course. The oppressive heat of July made the matter worse. One person among the crowd fainted right before my eyes. My brothers and I had to take care of the stranger who just fainted and to this day I regret now watching the entire lunar landing program.

With the lunar landing many of us thought the world had entered a new phase. Many college students in the campus were quick to assert that the Moon was no longer a sacred object because the American astronauts by walking on its surface had made it impure. Later, through grape vine we heard that many Mullahs were telling their congregations not to pay any attention to the event of lunar landing. The news must have given a jolt to many a devout religionist. To put it mildly, the cultural impact of the first lunar landing was hard.

Aside from personal story there were many exciting developments centering on lunar landing. In the aftermath of this historic event many of us had opined that this one small step by both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin Jr. is still hard to measure. Kids who grew up in the next decade already knew that man had ventured out in the outer space a quarter million miles to set foot on the moon. To these kids, the Moon is no longer a mysterious place. The NASA astronauts have taken photos of our blue planet from the Moon. Some new words were also coined after this historic event. Whoever would think about such word as “earth rise”? Thanks to NASA. Now one could view earth rise by viewing NASA’s photos taken from the Moon.

The astronauts left the Moon on July 22, 1969 and reached the earth when they splash down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. All three astronauts had received a hero’s welcome not only in America but allover the globe. Come to think of it, the astronauts had visited ‘Dacca’ sometimes in 1970. They rode an open hood vehicle after landing in Tejgaon’s Old air port. This news came to me in America via an air letter from my sister.

On a personal note, I left Dhaka 2 months after this seminal event in September 1969 to come to America for my graduate studies. It was a happy coincidence.
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Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA