Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers on What it Was Like to Watch the Moon Landing

In 2009, Tor.com celebrated the 40th anniversary of humans first setting foot on the moon by inviting authors, artists, critics, and fans in the science fiction community to share with us what they were doing that day, and to tell us how it informed their relationship with science fiction.

Now, as the 50th anniversary of the moon landing nears on July 20, 2019—and as Tor.com itself turns 11 years old—we present these recollections in the form of an oral history.

The excerpted remembrances below were originally created in 2009 and the full articles can be found here.

 

Where I Was, When I Was

Charles Stross, author of The Laundry Files series

Much to my surprise, I remember the Apollo 11 landing, and the first moon walk. My wife—who is 22 months younger than me—doesn’t. She was three years old at the time; I was not far off five, and somewhere in that gap lies that developmental point where most infants start to remember significant events.

I live in the UK. The precise moment when “Eagle” touched down, 20:17 UTC, would have been around 9pm; rather late for a toddler to be up, but I think I remember my parents bringing me into the living room to watch something important on the new, 625-line black-and-white PAL TV set. That memory is vague—I’ve seen footage of the descent so many times since that I can’t rely on my own experience.

What I definitely remember is my mother waking me up really early—it was still dark—and bringing me downstairs. It would have been around 2am the next morning. I was sleepy, and couldn’t make much sense of what I was seeing on the screen; the upside-down image (at first), the hazy, ghosting figure in the big suit clinging to a ladder, very slowly climbing down it, the crackling static on the sound. I knew something important was happening, because my parents had woken me up and told me to remember it. But after about fifteen minutes, not much seemed to be happening: and I was very sleepy. Back to bed.

Robert J. Sawyer, author of Flashforward and The Neanderthal Parallax series

On July 20, 1969, I was nine years old, and living in suburban Toronto. My whole family stayed up late to watch Neil and Buzz set foot upon the moon.

I was already a science-fiction fan by that point (my dad had taken me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey the year before; I was the youngest person in the theater). But there was, I knew, a huge difference between fiction and fact, and to see those grainy black-and-white images was a life-altering experience.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Editor-in-Chief at Tor Books

I was ten years old in 1969, and while we lived in Arizona that year, I spent most of the summer staying with family friends in Portland, Oregon while my parents visited Spain. It was an adventure all around. Artists like my own parents, the Hibbards were just a little bit more unruly and bohemian; their house in the hills of northwest Portland was full of paintings and pottery, but they didn’t own anything so bourgeois as a television set. Which is how I came to be listening to the “Eagle has landed” moment on the radio, rather than watching the coverage on TV. The other thing I was doing at that exact moment was throwing up into a metal bowl, because while Buzz Aldrin was guiding the LEM to the moon, I was making my own hard landing on Earth. Specifically, I fell out of a tree and concussed myself.

None of which prevented the whole household, me included, from decamping immediately to the the home of Jenny Hibbard’s elderly parents on the slopes of Mount Hood, in order to watch the actual moon walk in real time.

Stephen Baxter, author of the Xeelee Sequence series and co-author of The Long Earth series

I was 11 on the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. I’d grown up with Gemini and Apollo, and the real space stuff had slowly congealed in my consciousness, amid all the junior SF that already fascinated me. I’d been making construction kit models, and I had books, some too old for me, and a clever cardboard kit where you could move cut-outs of the bits of Apollo around a diorama of Earth and Moon, mapping out the mission sequence. I got up in the small hours to watch the Moon walk. I remember being baffled by the ghostly images, but I was astonished by the first clear view of them bouncing around—this really was another world.

Gregory Manchess, illustrator and author of Above the Timberline

I was 14 years old, sitting up late with my family in the kitchen, sometime after midnight in Kentucky, waiting. I could feel the entire world quietly listening to the tiny beeps of the astronauts’ radios.

Jeffrey A. Carver, author of Eternity’s End

I was just shy of 20 years old as the countdown proceeded. Home from college for the summer, I sat in my living room in Huron, Ohio, mesmerized by the moving phosphors as the Apollo/Saturn 5 rocket—to my eye the most beautiful creation in human history—steamed and fumed and all but stamped its feet with impatience.

C.J. Cherryh, author of the Alliance-Union series and The Foreigner series

I watched the moon landing from my home in Oklahoma City. I was teaching school as well as writing. I had gotten myself a house, lived solo, so I didn’t have any hindrances to watching. I had followed the whole process day by day, and got all the television coverage I could. In that day and age I didn’t have a video recorder. If you weren’t watching, you missed it. And I was glued to the set, all by myself, just me and the cats.

Rudy Rucker, author of the Ware tetralogy

On Moon Landing Day, I was already giddy, as my wife and I were expecting our first baby the next month. We listened to the landing on TV, amazed at the onward rush of history. As the news settled in, we went outside and looked up at the actual moon, nearly half full. It was exhilarating to think of there being people up there, and to think that close-up images of the moon were on our TV. It gave me a curious sense of being in two places at once.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr., author of the Imager Portfolio series and the Saga of Recluce 

In July, 1969, I was a 25-year-old Navy lieutenant preparing for deployment to Westpac as a search and rescue pilot with HC-1. I was completing transition from the H-2, a smaller helicopter, to the Sikorski H-3, which was better suited to the high density altitudes of Southeast Asia.

Surprisingly, in retrospect, even though I was a pilot and an avid SF reader, with the intensity of the retraining, I hadn’t paid much more than cursory attention to the Apollo 11 mission and didn’t realize the full extent of the media coverage until I returned home from the base late that afternoon, when my then-wife reminded me of what was happening. When the time drew closer to touchdown, we woke our son, then only two years old, and plunked him down with us in front of the television with the statement that he should see this historic moment, even if he might not remember it.

Robert Silverberg, editor and Grand Master of SF

It was such a big event that it pushed me into buying a television set. I had never owned one. I had no interest in what they showed on television—I was too busy reading, and writing—and that was how I missed out on being a Star Trek writer, because I knew nothing about television and simply shrugged when Gene Roddenberry showed up at the s-f convention in 1966 looking for writers. But a moon voyage, shown live on television—I could hardly allow myself to miss that!

Larry Niven, author of the Known Space series

I remember that day very well.

My about-to-be-wife Marilyn and I were on our way to a Moonship-watching party at John and Bjo Trimble’s house. We were at a traffic light when they decided to send the LEM down. I remember a moment of panic: Am I sure about this? Nothing will ever be the same.

At the Trimbles, we watched. The LEM landed. Then nothing happened for hours, as the astronauts slept. And finally they emerged. And the world was supposed to be changed forever.

 

Life in 1969

Michael Swanwick, author of The Mongolian Wizard series and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter

Nobody followed the space program closer than I did. My father was an engineer for General Electric’s aerospace division, so I had a better idea of the realities than most. Thus when, in 1969, using laughably primitive technology, two men landed on the Moon, I stayed up late to watch those grainy miraculous pictures on television, even though I had to get up at five in the morning to work in a factory to help pay for college.

Ben Bova, editor and author of the Grand Tour series

I was living in Massachusetts in 1969, working for the corporation that built the heat shields on the Apollo return modules. While I didn’t play a direct role in it, I nonetheless felt proud that our outfit helped to bring all the Apollo astronauts safely back to Earth.

Rudy Rucker

It’s worth remembering that the moon landing came at the tail end of the war in Viet Nam, and many people my age had strongly negative feelings about the military. Ultimately, all twelve of the Apollo moon-walkers were employed by the military or by NASA—which seriously dampened the vibe.

Pamela Sargent, author of the Seed Trilogy

I watched the first moon landing at a bar in Paducah, Kentucky, a fact worth mentioning only because I still remember how suddenly silence descended on this raucous place when Neil Armstrong started coming down that ladder. No one spoke, no one moved, people hardly breathed, and nobody ordered a drink or a beer for a long time. In the midst of the horror that was the Vietnam War, here was an event that could inspire some pride in my country again.

Phyllis Eisenstein, author of short fiction and The Book of Elementals series

I remember Heinlein [on TV] saying this was the most significant day in the history of the world, and though that sounded fairly pretentious, there was some level on which I had to agree with it. But I also remember that in the course of gathering man-on-the-street reactions for the news broadcast, one reporter went to some outdoor musical extravaganza and asked an audience member what he thought, and the guy said he didn’t care about the Moon landing, it wasn’t important—all those people gathered to listen to the music was what was important. And I wanted to scream at him, “Are you insane?”

Patrick Nielsen Hayden

There’s a latter-day notion that artsy hippie types in the 1960s disdained the space program. Not in my experience they didn’t. We watched, transfixed with reverence, not even making rude remarks about President Nixon during his phone call to the astronauts.

Michael Swanwick

What moved me most was the plaque on the lander, reading, “WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.” It was signed by Richard Nixon and a cynic would say that it was empty political rhetoric. Yet, astonishingly, forty years later, it appears that every word of it was true.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden

I later learned that my own parents had watched the whole thing surrounded by a crowd of equally amazed viewers in Spain, gazing at the television screens on display in the window of a home-furnishings store. I think much of the world spent that particular two hours with its mouth hanging open.

 

Buzz Aldrin Neil Armstrong moon landing NASA

Buzz Aldrin on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission

The Big Event

Jeffrey A. Carver

The phone rang. A friend had a proposal: if we jumped in the car right then and headed for Florida (a 30-hour drive), we might just make it to the Cape in time to watch the launch in person. This would require my commandeering a family car without my parents’ knowledge or permission, as neither was at home, and cell phones were still science fiction. That might not have been enough to stop me. What did stop me was this thought: if we were delayed or ran out of cash on the way (all too likely), we’d miss the launch altogether. That thought was too much to bear. I watched the launch on TV from home.

Kage Baker, author of the Company series

So anyway, on the 20th of July I knew we were about to land on the Moon and blah blah blah, but I was more concerned with getting permission to go to a midnight marathon of Beatles movies. My mother, for some reason, didn’t feel I was old enough to be spending a night in a seedy art house theater in a bad section of Hollywood. I was SEVENTEEN! So we had this raging fight which I did not win, of course, and I stormed up to my room, climbed out the window onto the roof and lay up there staring into the blue infinity, brooding on the way my mother never understood me ever, and fell asleep. I was only roused by my mother sticking her head out the window and screaming “What on earth are you doing out there? They’re just about to land on the Goddamn moon!”

Jeffrey A. Carver

Glorious! Saturn 5 climbs a pillar of fire into the sky! My God. That was our destiny, humanity’s destiny, to ride fire to the stars! (To this day, I cannot watch the replay without chills in my spine. The same goes for: “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”) Once those brave, lucky astronauts were safely en route, I settled in for the long watch.

Robert Silverberg

Moon Landing Day—a Sunday, it was, and I remember it as pretty warm and humid, as July days in New York usually tend to be—we gathered before the television set to watch Apollo’s final approach to the lunar surface. (And who ever imagined that we would watch the event as it happened, on television, in our homes?) “Two thousand feet,” Aldrin said, and Houston said, “Eagle looking great. You’re GO.” With the incredible crawl-line at the bottom of the screen saying something like LIVE TRANSMISSION FROM THE MOON. Followed by long anxious moments as the landing vehicle drifted over the barren surface, moving between craters and a boulder field—I am looking at the MOON, I told myself, I am looking at the MOON—and then came the great plume of dust as touchdown approached, and then the words, the unforgettable words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Simply typing them now, forty years later, moistens my eyes. [Editorial note: These recollections were originally penned in 2009.]

Ben Bova

Not very many people realized the very real life-and-death drama that took place during the final few minutes of Apollo 11’s touchdown on the Moon. As I watched the black-and-white television images, I thought something off was going on. It was. The landing site where the Eagle module was supposed to put down was strewn with dangerously large rocks. Neil Armstrong, piloting the Eagle, jinked the craft over at the very last instant and found a smoother place to land.

Once on the ground, Armstrong spoke the first words from the Moon: “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Memorable. But I recall Houston’s reply. “We copy you down, Eagle. You got a bunch of guys turning blue down here.”

Gregory Manchess

With all of that attention on the first step, there’s one thing that’s never mentioned about the last moments before Armstrong set the LEM down on the surface hours earlier: they had reached the limit of fuel for their return trip.

There was a palpable intensity between the beeps of the astronauts’ voices in the cockpit during the landing. You could hear Buzz say, “Red light!” in the dialog, reminding Neil that the landing fuel was exhausted and it was now or never. Armstrong was not satisfied with the chosen site and wanted to fly over a large boulder for a better position. He stretched the fuel right to the last second…and beyond! He took that risk.

I find it fascinating that for all of the precision involved in getting there, in the last moments before Man landed on the moon, the outcome was not determined by technology and science, but by intuition and guts. It still came down to a rudder, a stick, and a pilot.

Phyllis Eisenstein

We waited for hours, hoping the astronauts wouldn’t pause to take a nap before going outside. How could they? They had to be as excited as we were to see what it was like out there.

Robert Silverberg

Naively I thought that the hatch would now open, Neil Armstrong would come scrambling down the ladder, and within moments we would behold the spectacle of a human being walking on the moon. Well, no, there was all sorts of preliminary stuff to do first, hours of it, and throughout the rest of that afternoon we hovered impatiently near the TV, toting a transistor radio around with us for bulletins whenever we had to be elsewhere. It became clear after a time that the actual moonwalk would not begin until far into the evening, and we went downstairs for a hasty dinner, and went back up to the TV, and waited, and waited, and waited, and somewhere around eleven o’clock, more or less my bedtime then, came word that Armstrong was about to emerge, and there was that foot on the ladder, and the dimly seen spidery figure descending, and then, step by step, the descent to the lunar surface, the arrival on it, the utterance of the somewhat bungled and stagy official First Words.

Rudy Rucker

As is well known, Neil Armstrong got his first line slightly wrong, that is, he said, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind, ” without saying the “a.” That bothered me, adding to my sense of disappointment with the astronauts’ uninspired and inarticulate remarks.

Jeffrey A. Carver

Finally came the landing, and the footsteps on lunar soil, which I would not have missed if the house were on fire. But I had an unanticipated difficulty: Do I watch Walter Cronkite on CBS, with Arthur C. Clarke as guest, or John Chancellor on NBC, with Robert Heinlein? Aaahhh! With no remote, I kept leaping to the set to wrench the knob from one station to the other. What a satisfying crown to the occasion: two of my science fiction heroes, called upon to comment! I already knew then that science fiction would impart a crucial direction to my life. But what a triumph, what vindication!

Phyllis Eisenstein

All evening we watched Walter Cronkite fill air time, talking to Wally Schirra at the anchor desk, and then—shock of shocks—interviewing Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, because, after all, this was the stuff of science fiction. And I had to laugh when Cronkite began to introduce Heinlein and Clarke to each other, and Heinlein short-circuited him by observing that Clarke had visited his home. Cronkite’s staff hadn’t done their homework, and so he didn’t know what a small community science fiction was in those days.

Frederik Pohl, Grand Master of SF and author of Jem 

Of course everybody remembered Aldrin and Armstrong, but truthfully I had almost forgotten that Michael Collins existed. All the time the landing pair were gone he was fingering a little leather tag around his neck which gave him instructions on exactly what to do if any of a couple of dozen problems arose. For almost everything that might go wrong Houston had a solution, or at least something they could try. But for one possibility the tag had no cure. That was what to do if the lander failed to take off. And, Michael said, the whole time Aldrin and Armstrong were gone he spent trying to think of what he could say if it didn’t.

C.J. Cherryh

I was most relieved when that engine fired and got them off the surface. There’d been some concern about dust—even wondering if the astronauts might run into really dangerously deep dust.

Robert J. Sawyer

(And, yes, Buzz really did take Communion on the moon.)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Consulting Editor at Tor Books

I knew the moon landing was going to happen, and then it happened, pretty much as planned. To me, it seemed as stately as a coronation. I was happy about the event, and you couldn’t have dragged me away from the television while it was going on, but it wasn’t an illumination. It was more a vote of confidence: science works like this.

C.J. Cherryh

I did go out and look at the sky while they were on the moon. It was different that night. Somebody was definitely looking back at us, we were looking up at them, and half the world still didn’t know it.

 

Afterwards

David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington series

I knew I was seeing something special, something that was never again going to happen for the very first time, but I was sixteen. I had no notion of how I would look back at that day from 40 years down the road. And I think that those of us who saw it then, that night, live, sometimes fail to realize how much more stupendous those grainy, poor quality black-and-white images were for us than for the (literally) two generations who have seen them since as archive footage. In some ways, it’s like the opening sequence from the original Star Wars movie. When we sat in the theater and watched that huge starship rumbling by overhead, moving out into the screen for what seemed like forever, and then realized it was the little ship, we were seeing something moviegoers had never seen before. Now it’s old hat, and people who first saw it on the little screen are never going to be as impressed by it as we were when we saw it on the big screen for the very first time.

Stephen Baxter

I stayed glued to the later Apollo missions. I had a diplomatic illness that kept me off school during Apollo 13, so I followed every minute of it. The post-Apollo downturn coincided with my own adolescence, and the whole space thing came to seem a kind of baroque dream of my late childhood, to be put aside by me as well as by the world. But by then I was discovering other sorts of sf, such as the mind-expanding visions of Clarke and Stapledon. I came back to Apollo much later when I rediscovered the lost possibilities that might have followed—missions to Mars in the 1980s—and the sheer wonder of those first missions, revisited with an adult eye.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Apollo 13 (“Houston, we’ve had a problem”) was the mission that caught my heart. Onboard explosion, loss of electrical power, failure of both oxygen tanks? The network talking heads made soothing noises for the benefit of people who didn’t know anything, but I wasn’t fooled. I knew there was no guarantee that Lovell, Swigert, and Haise would get home alive. (Years later, the Challenger exploded during takeoff. I heard the news from a fellow editor at Chelsea House shortly after it happened. “They don’t know yet whether there are any survivors,” she said. I remember staring at her a few seconds, feeling hollow-eyed and solemn and sad, then saying “There aren’t any.”)

L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

I did swallow hard when Armstrong actually stepped onto the moon, but the impact of that moment became far greater over time, especially once I ended up as a political staffer in Washington, D.C., and watched the politicians continue to gut the space program year after year. That contrast between the focused aspirations and technical excellence of the Apollo program and political “reality” brought home in a continuing and gut-wrenching way how far removed politics can be from the best of human achievement, and that understanding, I think, is reflected in most of the books I’ve written.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Years later, I wound up acquiring and publishing a novel, The Return, written by Buzz Aldrin and the SF writer John Barnes. In connection with this, Barnes’s agent Ashley Grayson and I wound up having lunch with Aldrin in a poolside restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard.

Now, as it happens, Buzz Aldrin is a charming and fascinating man. Not only is he one of the smartest people ever to serve in the astronaut corps, he also has a sense of humor about himself that is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that when you emerge from the elevator to his penthouse apartment, the first thing you see is an illuminated glass case displaying a moon rock…and a Buzz Lightyear doll.

But what I best remember about that lunch is that when we got onto the subject of the “Aldrin Cycler,” his proposed trajectory for a manned Earth-Mars mission, he began to demonstrate the relative positions of Earth, Mars, the spacecraft, and the sun by vigorously moving various implements of tableware around. At that exact moment I thought to myself (but did not say), “The grizzled old spaceman is now explaining the ballistics of space travel by using the tablecloth and the silverware. I am in a Heinlein juvenile, somewhere in the vicinity of Starman Jones or Have Space Suit, Will Travel, and my life is now complete.”

Gregory Benford, author of the Galactic Center Saga

Buzz Aldrin asked me to hold out my hand. I did.

He walked across the room with what I saw—for the first time in my life, not just a literary phrase—was classic catlike grace. He looked at my hands and even I could see a slight finger tremble.

“That’s why you’d never make a fighter pilot,” he said. “Everybody who went to the moon had absolutely still hands, perfect coordination, and—” he grinned—“by the way, was an Eagle scout.”

So much for my fighter pilot dreams. We were in his home in Laguna Beach in the 1980s and he wanted to talk about writing a novel with him. I was skeptical (and later the deal didn’t work out). Still I was awed by the guy I’d watched leap joyfully in the moon’s gravity, while Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke commented. So I said, “With all that capability, where would you have liked to go next?”

“Mars,” he said. He spoke of the Bonestell covers on Collier’s magazine, accompanying the von Braun articles. The sharp paintings of the Mars fleet—insectoid landers, spherical fuel chambers naked to the view. A utilitarian armada.

“I thought I was going to go to Mars,” he said. “I thought that for years.”

“When did you stop?”

“When I saw the shuttle designs.” He shook his head.

“A space ship designed by a committee,” I said.

“Yeah, a committee of lawyers.”

“If not Mars, how about going back to the moon?”

“I’d like to be buried there.” He smiled but the eyes were distant.

“In a few decades, unless we get our asses back in gear, nobody who walked on the moon will be alive.”

“Being there, that was the peak?”

He chuckled. “No, coming back was. I was pretty damn sure I would go out again. I knew I could do it and wanted to again.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Pamela Sargent

Over the years, I have increasingly felt that the world I live in has somehow diverged from the continuum that I lived in then, the one that was to become the spacefaring energy-rich future so many of us foresaw. I’m obviously not alone in this feeling, as something like that mixture of regret and disappointment seems to have fueled the writing of alternative histories, including a few of my own. Humankind’s hopes these days are more limited and more desperate, confined to hoping that we can save our own planet from an ecological catastrophe. Science fiction writers had been imagining that possibility, too, for a number of years before 1969, but such disasters seemed distant back then, a lot further away and more improbable than moon bases, space stations, and a mission to Mars.

Larry Niven

We went to the Moon, and returned, and stopped. There was no moment of disappointment. It just grew over the decades. We were promised the Moon.

Charles Stross

I watched the TV news in 1970 as Apollo 13 ran into trouble, with a five-year-old’s understanding; I watched the final take-off of the Apollo 17 LM ascent stage on that same black and which TV in 1972 as an eight-year-old, still unable to quite comprehend that the program was over. Then it began to sink in—that I probably wasn’t going to grow up to be an astronaut, after all.

They’d taken the moon away from me.

David Weber

I want that hubris back. I want us to be accomplishing unique and enormous things again, with the confidence that we can accomplish them. I want manned spaceflight, not just back to the Moon, but beyond that. And I want my daughters and my son to have their own July 20, 1969, to remember.

Apollo 11 didn’t give us wings; it only showed us how far the wings we had would take us.

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