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Moonwalk Memories | Wrapping up the '60s
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Homepage for One Small Step. One Giant Leap. Man's first moonwalk, 40 years later

The Swinging Sixties, it could be said, began with a promise from a young president and ended with its fulfillment.

In-between were some of the most tumultuous years in American history. Events in the 1960s rolled by like a freight train: The Cold War, Vietnam, civil rights and women's liberation, sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll, the assassinations of two Kennedys and a King. Those who lived through it remember it as a blur of change and unrest.

Even Gainesville, then a quiet North Georgia town, wasn't immune. On July 15, 1969, the top headline in The Daily Times read: "City to close Butler, completely integrate."

The Gainesville Board of Education had voted to close all-black E.E. Butler High and desegregate its schools.

A day later, our world changed even more dramatically when the astronauts of Apollo 11 blasted off into space.

Four days later, on a summer Sunday evening, some 500 million people, the largest audience to witness a single event, gathered around their televisions to watch a grainy black-and-white image of the first human setting foot on the moon.

It brought to fruition the vow made by President John F. Kennedy in a May 1961 address to Congress, when he challenged the nation to "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." When that goal was reached, the United States had won the biggest prize in the quest to conquer the heavens.

But what did it mean to a society torn apart by earthbound conflicts? Several college professors believe it offered a brief respite in a vortex of bad news.

"I recall that in the midst of all the tumult and division and anger of the 1960s, it seemed that the one public policy that united most all of us was the space program," said Douglas Young, a political science professor at Gainesville State College in Oakwood. "And the one public policy that excited, even thrilled us, was the Apollo moon program."

"I remember as a kid, 8 years old, watching the news with my dad and seeing body counts. It seemed that everything was bad; it seemed that everything was spinning out of control," recalls Clay Ouzts, a Gainesville State history professor. "And in the midst of all of that, that we could come together and actually achieve a dream that had been a dream of humanity for hundreds and hundreds of years ... it was absolutely phenomenal.

"And although the chaos and rioting did not stop, in the midst of that, the moon landing was like a silver lining. It was hope, the hope of humanity. That in spite of all the bad things and all the chaos, that people could come together and do something positive and beneficial for humanity."

Yet the moon landing was more than a human triumph. The mission itself was sparked by the ongoing space race with the Soviet Union, an offshoot of the Cold War. Most at the time considered it an American feat to stick the first bootprint on another world.

"I think it was passively unifying, in that it brought a lot of people to the same event," said Steve Gurr, a retired history professor and Gainesville resident. "But we shouldn't have the assumption that it led us to join hands and ‘give the world a Coke.' ... The idea that it unified us, in looking back, is somewhat contrived."

"It was very important for our national sense of identity, and our sense of greatness in the world, superiority in the world, that we beat the Russians to the moon," Ouzts said. "And I think that fueled the NASA program and allowed the government to pump money into the program, with the vision to get there first."

Americans welcomed the distraction, sitting glued to their console TVs throughout the mission. The Space Age had the biggest effect on the children of the '60s, those too young to care about The Beatles or Vietnam. Those growing up in the "Tang Dynasty" wanted to be space explorers, their role models coming not from comic books but flesh-and-blood heroes who were zooming to new worlds.

"The astronauts were such wonderful heroes," Young said. "They really were the modern explorers, if you will, sort of the modern equivalent of earlier people like Columbus and Magellan, they exploring whole new worlds. ... Children of my time were the first in history who believed we could explore the heavens."

"It was just super cool from a kid's standpoint," said Ben Wynne, a history professor at Gainesville State. "There was nothing cooler to a kid than being an astronaut. Everybody I knew loved it."

Part of that was the newness of watching events unfold on television. If Kennedy's 1963 assassination was history's first tragedy shared in real time, the moonwalk provided an equally uplifting moment. Many remember the image of late CBS anchor Walter Cronkite giggling like a schoolkid as astronauts hopscotched on the moon.

"The news media was overwhelming in its support of the space program," Young said. "There was little pretense of objectivity, especially after all of the negativity over Vietnam. ... We're not nearly as divided now as we were then."

The moonwalk also put an exclamation point on what could be called the Kennedy Decade. JFK's legacy began in 1960 with his New Frontier, bound the nation in shared grief with his death and ended with his summons to reach the moon.

"The moon landing had the shadow of Kennedy all over it," Ouzts said. "It was kind of like the Manhattan Project in World War II. So much time and so much effort and so much buildup had been invested in it, we had to see it through. The moon landing was the legacy of John F. Kennedy."

"It was a reminder of the pre-assassination Kennedy," Wynne said. "Once Kennedy was assassinated, nothing was ever the same. There was distrust of government, of society in general. The moon landing kind of took you back to the days before all the ugliness."

Perhaps the final word on the '60s can be found in the plaque placed on the moon by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the aptly named Sea of Tranquility. It simply read: "Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

Indeed, it likely was the most peaceful act of a decade that was anything but tranquil.

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