Thanks to NASA putting the video up on YouTube, we’re fortunate enough today to watch the CBS coverage of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps, 45 years ago this week.
Legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite, who died five years ago yesterday amid 40th anniversary celebrations, helmed the moon coverage for CBS. His quotes from that night are so much a part of history that they’ve even appeared in Hollywood; the 1995 movie Apollo 13 had an edited version of his remarks playing over the first steps.
But in the live coverage, Cronkite showed why he was so good — he had the courage to wait to make a statement until all the facts were available. Armstrong’s first words while standing on the moon ended in static. Cronkite, who must have felt pressure to immediately repeat what Armstrong said, waited until he could get confirmation.
Armstrong’s first words on the moon as heard on television were “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But starting around the word “leap”, static interfered and the word “mankind” was almost unintelligible.
“I didn’t understand,” Cronkite said after a pause. ” ‘One small step for man.’ But I didn’t get the second phrase.”
Cronkite waited, saying he would like to know what the phrase was. Armstrong talked on about the powder on the moon’s surface. About 30 seconds passed, then Cronkite had his answer from somebody: “His quote was, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ ”
Decades later, Cronkite recalled how he felt on that night in his 1996 biography, A Reporter’s Life:
That first landing on the moon was indeed, the most extraordinary story of our time and almost as remarkable a feat for television as the space flight itself. To see Neil Armstrong, 240,000 miles out there, as he took that giant step for mankind onto the moon’s surface, was a thrill beyond all the other thrills of that flight. All those thrills tumbled over each other so quickly that the goose pimples from one merged into the goose pimples from the next.
Cronkite also poked fun at his own reporting, saying he was speechless when lunar module Eagle landed despite having the same number of years as NASA to get ready for it.
” ‘Oh boy! Whew! Boy!’ These were my first words, profundity to be recorded for the ages. They were all I could utter,” Cronkite wrote.
Do watch the entire broadcast, it’s a joy, but the first steps take place around 22:55.