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45 years ago today, Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon

About a million people gathered in Florida witnessed the liftoff of Apollo 11, which occurred at 8:32 a.m., Eastern Daylight time on July 16, 1959 from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch of the Saturn V was perhaps the most impressive thing ever to occur on Earth that did not involve waging war. Birds scattered in its wake. Wildlife scampered to get away from the noise and the shockwave of the 7.5 million pounds of thrust that the five F-1 rocket engines in the first stage put out.

Liftoff Apollo 11
Liftoff Apollo 11
NASA (public domain)

That same shockwave rolled out and struck the bodies of a million people who had gathered in Florida that day to witness history. It was so strong that the unwary could have been knocked off their feet. It caused glass windows to shudder and filled the air with a noise like the roaring of a great beast at the edge of the east Florida coast. Then, slowly, steadily, the Saturn V ascended like a great arrow that had been shot at the heavens.

A billion people followed the launch in front of TVs in living rooms without number, in public spaces, in any place where people could gather. By today’s standards the images were occasionally fuzzy, without the crisp clarity that modern high def monitors are capable. But the sight of that rocket lifting off was more wonderful than any CGI filled space adventure ever put on the big or small screen.

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were headed to the moon. It was like nothing that had ever happened before or since. It was like watching Columbus, Magellan, or Drake set sail live, as it happened. History was happening in real time, the greatest reality show in history. And unlike the modern kind, the drama in his reality show was not contrived. Three men from Earth were setting forth across the airless sea to test themselves and the work of 400,000 people and eight years in a voyage of discovery.

And the whole world flew with them.