16 July 2009

Apollo 11

Most people of a certain age recall where they were and what they were doing when especially memorable events took place, for example, the attack on Pearl Harbor, V-E Day, V-J Day, JFK's assassination, the launch of Apollo 11.

The where and what of the Apollo 11 launch remains clear to me because on that day I finished a three month tour of duty in Thailand supporting fighter strikes against North Vietnam. Our flight and ground crew, plus some passengers, departed U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Base, which is south-southeast of Bangkok about 80 miles, as the KC-135 flies. We were headed for Kadena Air Base, Okinawa on the first leg of our trip back to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico. While we launched in the early morning darkness on 17 July it was still daylight on 16 July at the Kennedy Space Center, where Apollo 11 had already launched. We didn't know that though. When we arrived at Kadena that morning we were able to see replays of the Apollo 11 launch from just a few hours before. We knew that the astronauts were on their way to a moon landing.

Two days later we launched on the second leg of our journey back to Ramey AFB; this time our destination was Hickam AFB, Hawai'i. According to my flight log, it took us ten hours and six minutes to make the flight. It was late on 19 July, Honolulu time, when we landed.

Apollo 11 was in lunar orbit. In the time it had taken us to fly from Thailand to Hawai'i Apollo 11 had flown to the moon.

The next day was a layover day at Hickam for us; it was also the day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon. It was a Sunday, and not much was going on at Hickam, in fact, everyone who could do so was sitting in front of a TV set someplace. The lounge of the transient aircrew quarters we were assigned to was full; every seat was taken and everyone was glued to the TV set. Since everything was being reported in real time it seemed like it took forever for Armstrong and Aldrin to get in the LEM, make the descent to the lunar surface, and make a successful landing. Then there was another forever until Armstrong stepped out of the LEM and put the first human footprint on the lunar soil. When that happened there was jubilation all around.

The tension was broken when both astronauts stepped onto the lunar surface, but there was still a lot that had to happen before they would safely return to Earth. Unfortunately, after the moment Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface I don't recall a thing.

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