Tom Ross: Old issue of Life brings back moon memories
August 27, 2012
Steamboat Springs — The heroes of our youth are supposed to live forever. So, it came as a shock during the weekend when I received the news that the first man to walk on the moon had died.
Neil Armstrong's down-to-earth personality contrasted immensely with the loftiness of his perch in human history.
I was preparing for my sophomore year in high school when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, and I vividly recall the historic event. So, after reading the news of Armstrong's death, I wanted to find a touchstone, if not a moon rock, that would help me connect with that day 43 years ago when we sat transfixed in front of the TV watching a grainy picture of Armstrong hopping down from the ladder of the lunar landing module.
I found that point of connection in a shallow cardboard box in the garage where I keep some old copies of Life magazine. Sadly, I don't have the copy of Life that celebrated Apollo 11 and Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon. But I do have the next best thing — the Dec. 12, 1969, issue of the magazine with the cover shot of an Apollo 12 astronaut on the moon.
Can you name the third and fourth men to walk on the moon roughly five months after Armstrong and Aldrin made history? They were Charles Conrad and Al Bean, respectively.
Conrad and Bean spent eight hours on the lunar surface, twice as long as their predecessors. But the television feed failed, and the color images that NASA supplied to Life likely were the first that the American public saw of the second moon mission.
The photographs were nothing short of spectacular, including one of Bean removing a radioactive fuel element from the lander and another of him inspecting the Surveyor 3 robotic moon lander that had landed on the moon in April 1967.
The Apollo 12 astronauts also returned with a stunning film of the Earth eclipsing the sun, taken on the return trip.
Almost as interesting as the coverage of Apollo 12 is Life's reflection of the state of America's consumer culture in that era.
It's oft been repeated that Americans walk around today with phones in their pockets that contain more computing power than the early space missions.
The advertisements in Life right before the December holidays in 1969 included one for the big new General Electric television sets with their 23-inch screens. There was nothing flat about television screens in those days — they came inside a piece of wooden living room furniture.
Today, we take digital photographs with our smartphones. In 1969, Kodak was selling Instamatic cameras with flashcubes for less than $30, but Polaroid was tempting consumers with its instant film cameras for $25.
The sticker price on a Ford Maverick began at $1,995 in 1969, and a Toyota Corona cost $1,970. A dashboard GPS unit wasn't an option on either car.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon had begun withdrawing Army units from Vietnam, Chicago's 100-story John Hancock Center had just opened and consumer electronic devices were decidedly quaint. But our space program was the best in the solar system. And that hasn't changed in 43 years.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com