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Mad Men’s 1960s Handbook – The Apollo 11 Mission

This week’s Mad Men 1960s Handbook looks at the Apollo 11 mission, which takes place over the course of the Mid-Season Finale, “Waterloo.”

On the evening of July 20, 1969, an estimated 125 million U.S. television viewers — 61 percent of the country — witnessed Neil Armstrong become the first human to set foot on the Moon. Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 space mission, memorialized the accomplishment with his historic pronouncement, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Edwin A. “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins accompanied Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission, which began on July 16, 1969, when a three-stage Saturn V rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atop the rocket sat the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, and the lunar module, the Eagle.

Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin descended toward the Moon in the Eagle. As they neared the surface, Armstrong noticed that the module’s computer had selected a steep, rocky slope as a landing spot. With fuel running dangerously low, Armstrong took manual control and guided the Eagle to a flat portion of the Sea of Tranquillity. “The Eagle has landed,” he famously reported.

Seventeen minutes after Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon, Aldrin joined him. For the next two hours and 15 minutes, the astronauts collected rocks and other lunar materials. They also photographed the Moon’s terrain, planted a TV camera and an American flag, and conducted seismic, soil, wind, and other experiments. The permanent equipment they installed included a retroreflector that — to this day — sends laser signals used by scientists to measure the distance between Earth and the Moon at any given moment.

In a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to commit to landing a man on the Moon before the ’60s ended. Kennedy touted the scientific benefits of space travel, but also played the Cold War card. If the United States triumphed in the space race, Kennedy maintained, it would encourage citizens of the world to choose democracy over communism.

Though its impact on opinions about government style is up for debate, without question the Apollo 11 mission generated enormous interest worldwide. Television networks in the U.S. and abroad recorded reactions in private homes and public spaces. Among the viewers left awed by the images of Armstrong walking on the Moon was CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who beamed at his audience and simply said, “Whew, boy!”

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