Exactly 50 years ago Saturday, humanity stepped out of its cradle as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins became the first people to land on the moon.
Retired photojournalist Harvey Olsen of east Cobb watched the whole thing live for the second time Saturday from the comfort of his living room, thanks to a YouTube livestream of the original CBS broadcast from July 20, 1969.
The first time around, Olsen was stationed with other members of the press from around the world at the Kennedy Space Center.
“Right behind us there were some Japanese people and some French people who kept losing their contact. All you heard was ‘’Ello, Paris? ‘Ello, Paris?’” All day long, they couldn’t get their connection. They finally did though,” he said with a laugh.
Olsen retired in 1989 after a career in which he covered countless space launches. He’s met and befriended numerous astronauts and has a room in his house dedicated to memorabilia from his time on the space beat. He spoke to the MDJ from that room before the landing Saturday, surrounded by model rockets, autographed photos of astronauts, a signed letter from Richard Nixon and even pieces of a rocket and launch pad.
Olsen said he was even one of the first human beings to see photographs from the moon — they had been developed while the astronauts were still under quarantine and he got a peek at them through the glass partition.
When the clock got close to 4 p.m. Saturday, Olsen made for the living room to hear Walter Cronkite narrate the last nerve-wracking minutes as Apollo 11 made its decent toward the lunar surface.
That broadcast is what the reporters gathered at the space center were watching on the day of the landing, he said. NASA only provided audio, but CBS also had a state-of-the-art simulation showing the landing module’s path of descent and other up-to-the-minute information about the mission.
Sitting on his recliner surrounded by friends and family, Olsen said his heart was pumping just as it was 50 years ago.
“And now I know what’s going to happen,” he added with a grin.
Back then, that wasn’t the case, and Olsen said some of his fellow reporters thought the mission would be aborted shortly before touchdown when a voice from mission control started talking about error code 1202.
“When we started hearing problems toward the end with alarms going off, we started saying ‘Well, maybe Apollo 12 will get the chance to land,” he said. “We were nervous.”
Olsen said he later found out that error code meant the guidance computer was being overloaded with tasks.
“Right now, your watch is smarter than the computer in the (lunar module),” he said.
Olsen said the actual moment of touchdown came about 30 seconds later than is shown in the famous CBS broadcast.
If you go back and watch, you’ll know the men have landed when Aldrin says “Contact light. OK, engine stop,” Olsen said. A few seconds later, Armstrong says “Houston, Tranquility Base here,” and cheering can be heard from mission control.
Olsen said for those in the press pool, the landing was met with quiet awe.
“It was more subdued, it was a state of shock, realizing what had just happened historically,” he said. “I don’t remember any voices yelling or screaming. It was like, wow. Everybody was like wow. It was a wow moment, essentially.”
Olsen remembered after the shock wore off, some of the reporters passed around glasses of champagne. He said he looked over at the NASA public relations officers to see their reaction. Drinking was not allowed on government facilities, so he said he had a laugh when he saw the press officers toasting alongside the reporters.
But he said for NASA, the real celebration didn’t come until the men had landed safely back on Earth.
“If you really look into it, they had landed, yes, they were happy, but the celebration had to be curbed by the fact that we also had to bring them back,” he said. “They were in great danger. They were on a foreign planet. ... Everybody was on pins and needles.”
After the landing’s anniversary Saturday, Olsen and his friends celebrated with another champagne toast to those who made the landing possible. Guests snacked on hors d’oeuvres including Moon Pies and a cake shaped like an astronaut’s footprint and reminisced about watching the moon landing.
Retired B-52 Air Force navigator Steve Carter, who went around town in his Apollo 11 T-shirt and NASA hat, said he watched the 1969 landing from his parent’s house in Seattle, and it was a life-changing experience for him.
“Every time I look at the moon, I think of the words ‘God created the Heavens and the Earth,’” he said. “It’s almost a religious thing to me.”