This story is part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.
About 3.5 billion earthlings lived on this planet in 1969, and a full sixth of them—600 million souls—watched the Apollo moon landing on TV. The Apollo 11 crew had lifted off on July 16 from Kennedy Space Center, where people camped out for days to get a good spot to watch the launch. It took four days to travel to the moon, and then on July 20, 1969, the lunar module touched down. Shortly before 11 pm on the East Coast, the first clear TV picture was received back on Earth. When Neil Armstrong took the very first step onto the moon’s surface, it was the biggest television event of the 20th century.
Apollo 11, the Moon, and the Future of Space Exploration
Not every household had a television back then, so viewers flocked to friends’ houses, airports, and appliance storefronts. Sears department stores welcomed watchers and tuned in all their Zenith and RCA sets (for sale, of course) so people could watch the historic moment in both black-and-white and color. The astronauts doubled as photographers and cinematographers, to make sure all the millions of viewers were not disappointed: According to a log of events, Houston was asking the astronauts to adjust camera views and angles as they began exploring, gathering samples, staking flags, and documenting. Every move they made its way to Mission Control in Houston and then broadcast to the world by the big three TV networks.
People watched the launch, the landing, the crew banter onboard in zero gravity, the mighty splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, the crew in quarantine, and then the celebratory parade in New York City. Moon fever was everywhere, but it was, of course, only on TV. Today, epic events—whether they be SpaceX launches, royal weddings, or the US Women’s soccer championship—happen in your palm, on your own little screen, and you can comment and react as history unfolds. No need to gather together; we’re all audiences of one now.