Second by second the approach to the moon’s surface, never before touched by man, was described by NASA through VOA. And then there was a crackle. It was Neil Armstrong informing the home planet, the earth, indeed civilisation: ‘The Eagle has landed’
It was an incredible moment. All through the night, it was the small family radio I stayed glued to between 20 and 21 July 1969. By the time the Voice of America would inform its listeners of the descent of Apollo-11 to the surface of the moon, it would be July 21 in our part of the world but still a day earlier in the United States.
It was a summer pre-dawn in Quetta, Baluchistan, where my parents and we siblings happened to be owing to my father's service with the Geological Survey of Pakistan. A student of class nine, or Junior Cambridge as it was in the missionary school --- St Francis Grammar School --- I went to, I had become increasingly drawn to space science, and particularly to the space programmes of the United States and the Soviet Union. The terms 'astronauts' and 'cosmonauts' were fascinating. The fact that spacecraft were called Gemini and Apollo on the American side and Sputnik and Soyuz on the Soviet side was an introduction to a whole new world of discovery.
As I waited for VOA to relay the lunar landing directly from the moon, I simply went back to thoughts of the very first time I was brought in touch with space travel. My father regularly brought home copies of Panorama, a US government journal, and in one of them I came across the story of John Glenn's orbit of the earth. The issue was loaded with pictures of the astronaut preparing to go into space. A sense of mystery came into my perception of the entire business of space travel. It was at that time that I read of Alan Shepard, the astronaut who had preceded Glenn into space. I was in Class Two in school and was on my own journey of discovery.
Now that two of the three men on Apollo-11 were on their way down to the moon's surface on the small lunar module, names like Valentina Tereshkova and Yuri Gagarin played in the mind. The moments flitted by and I recalled the devastating fire that had reduced the astronauts Virgil, Grissom and Chafee to charred human remains on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy. They perished when their spacecraft exploded on the ground, before it could lift off, in 1967. It was tragedy I was to pore over in Dawn, the newspaper my parents kept at home. And, yes, in those moments prior to the landing of the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, I remembered that it was President John F. Kennedy who had set America on its course to the moon, promising to have a man land there and brought back to earth before the decade was out. That was 1961. This was 1969.
VOA remained focused on the Apollo-11 landing. I remained focused on VOA, making sure that the knob of the battery-operated radio did not shift and cause me to miss the historic moment that was only seconds away. And finally that moment was there. NASA was keeping everyone posted about Armstrong and Aldrin transferring to the lunar module from the command module and on to their descent. Second by second the approach to the moon's surface, never before touched by man, was described by NASA through VOA. And then there was a crackle. It was Neil Armstrong informing the home planet, the earth, indeed civilisation: 'The Eagle has landed.'
It would soon be morning in Quetta and my siblings and I would need to get ready for school. My scream of joy awoke my parents, whom I excitedly informed that man had landed on the moon. In seconds it was an entire family that threw itself into a state of happy excitement. The thrill of the moment was indescribable and even if you ask me today, I certainly cannot put it in words. Those memorable words, again from Armstrong: 'That's one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind', have kept buzzing in my ears since that moment I heard him say them on the moon. In school that morning, I related to my classmates the entire story of how Armstrong and Aldrin had stepped on to the moon, though I did feel rather bad about Michael Collins being left alone in the command module, waiting for his colleagues to return to it for the journey back home.
It was a charming world of science I wallowed in. On VOA, there was news about the moonwalk, about the collection of moon rocks, the footmarks left by the astronauts on the lunar surface for eternity, the planting of the American flag, accompanied by a plaque bearing the message from earthlings: 'We came in peace for all mankind.'
A few days later, Apollo-11 came back home, making a fiery entry through penetrating the earth's atmosphere. As Columbia, carrying the astronauts, bobbed in the sea, President Nixon spoke to them on the phone. All of this was on VOA, for the radio was in those days my constant companion. Quetta had no television. In 1970, winning the first place in an inter-school debate, I received a precious prize: a book on Apollo-11. In 1999, in Washington DC, I stood watching the Apollo-11 command module, preserved in the National Air and Space Museum.
Since 20 July 1969, the moon has been a landscape of wonders for me. I have thought back to the journey of Apollo-8, the first spacecraft to travel to the dark side of the moon and re-emerge into light on Christmas Eve 1968. I have recalled the near disaster that overcame Apollo-13 in April 1970. The tragedy and the triumph linked to explorations of outer space has in a way been part of my experience. I have never forgotten the heartache which came with the burning out of the Challenger spacecraft as it lifted off into space on a January day in 1986, reducing all the astronauts into ashes scattered across the skies.
And yet Apollo-11 remains a conviction, a belief that someday we will know more about the many worlds beyond ours, the nature of the cosmos, the reach of the universe. Apollo-11 remains a celebration of the human spirit.