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Detroit — Many nights of their younger lives, people in Michigan and around the world had looked up at the moon, 240,000 miles away.

Its gravity affected their bodies, the lakes and oceans around them.

For ages, the mysterious satellite of Earth and provider of night’s light informed mythology and set time.

On July 20, 1969, humans landed and walked there.

It was 50 years ago.

And that was 66 years after Kitty Hawk.

The great desire, stated by a young president seven years earlier, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade …” became a rallying cry for their generation, amid the Baby Boom that followed World War II.

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When John F. Kennedy spoke, a totalitarian foe, the Soviet Union, led the United States in the race to space, in a decade fraught with turmoil and crisis, and riven by struggles to be, and remain, free.

As the 1960s drew to a close, a glimmering flash of brave victory and heroic accomplishment suddenly lent solace to their battered American dreaming.

People around Michigan gazed intently at the scintillating, awesome moments of the first humans on the moon. Many gathered around televisions, some still displaying black-and-white video, in the company of their families and friends.

On that warm, humid Sunday afternoon, shortly after four o’clock, they heard Neil Armstrong taking temporary control of the lunar module, which was flying it as it had never been flown in training to avoid a dense collection of craters.

Back on Earth, 600 million people watched the TV coverage, monitoring the dialogue between Armstrong and NASA Mission Control on tenterhooks.

As the 38-year-old Armstrong’s voice crackled through the enormous tension, he broke seemingly long moments of silence.

“Houston, uh, Tranquility Base, here!” Armstrong said. “The Eagle has landed.”

About six hours later, about two hours after night fell in Michigan, Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module.

At 10:56 p.m. EDT, as millions of people in Michigan watched,Armstrong placed his foot on the moon and uttered two of the most quoted sentences in history.

“One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

'This country is the best'

A future president of General Motors was glued to a TV, watching one of the greatest engineering achievements in history.

“Like everyone else who was watching that day, I was completely blown away by the moon landing,” said GM President Mark Reuss.

“It seems impossible that it was 50 years ago.

“I was 5 going on 6, in our living room at home, watching it with my family on an old black-and-white TV that had a lit halo ring (an illuminated border around the picture tube). We all saw these grainy images of the lunar lander and of man walking on the moon.

“And we were all sitting there thinking, this country is the best!”

Reuss later received a mechanical engineering degree from Vanderbilt University.

“It's hard to imagine another event that inspired so much universal national pride while at the same time driving a generation of kids toward science and engineering,” he said. “I know it made me want to build things almost immediately. 

“I built an incredibly detailed model of the Apollo lunar module, and when I was finished, it felt like the coolest thing I'd ever done. I built many other model rockets after that, the kind you can launch into the sky right in your yard.”

For Reuss, the anniversary is truly golden.

“The nation should definitely take the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the significance of this amazing accomplishment, and perhaps inspire another generation of young people to pursue math and science,” he said. “We have a lot of remarkable things happening in engineering today, particularly in the auto industry, and to have young people interested in and excited about engineering would surely prove a great benefit.”

'A very exciting moment'

In her home on Detroit's east side, Ernestine Beavers gathered with a throng: her children, nieces and nephews.

“Well, it was a very exciting moment. Unbelievable!” she recalled.

“At first, you really don’t believe that what happened could have happened. That man would land there.

“And to be that exciting?” Beavers said, shaking her head gently. “But what was wonderful is that they made it back.”

'They're fooling you'

As she sat with Beavers and others knitting in the Butzel Family Center on Kercheval, Deborah Medley recalled an uncle and the conspiracy theories that arose with some of the astonishment over the moon mission.

“I was sitting with my uncle. He had come over to my house, and I was sitting with him,” said Medley, who was in her home on the east side.

“And he told me that there is no such thing as somebody on the moon walking,” she said, as other women knitting chuckled knowingly.

“He said, 'Don’t you understand how they’re fooling you?'

“And I kind of believed that,” Medley said.

“I thought: 'Walking on the moon? Do they know what the moon is?’ she said, laughing at the wonderment of it all.

“So he told me they were probably over in another country, and they had hooked everything up. And I believed that for years.

“But now, as technology has advanced: They really were on the moon!

“So that’s what I remember.”

An awestruck boy

Mark Schlissel, who would go on to obtain a doctorate in physiological chemistry and become a medical doctor and president of the University of Michigan, was at home in New York City.

“I was 12 years old, living with my family in an apartment building in Brooklyn,” he said. “I watched various stages of the Apollo program, particularly Apollo 11, on our family's small black-and-white TV.

“I vividly remember news anchor Walter Cronkite describing the events and providing background in his measured and authoritative fashion.”

For a Brooklyn boy, it was all much about awe.

“I was amazed at the ability to send a spacecraft to land on a rock about 250,000 miles from Earth, and to hear the voices and see the images of Neil Armstrong almost in real time as he set foot on the moon's surface,” Schlissel said.

“We were all very anxious during communications blackouts, landing and take-off of the lunar module.”

The awesomeness illuminated the potential of life, he said.

“It put the power of science and engineering on full display and gave me a sense of the possibilities of human ambition.

“It seems unreal now that a president would establish a goal as audacious as this one was in its day,” Schlissel said. “And that how we were willing back then to all chip in to spend money on a government project with dreams about the future.”

'Mixed feelings about it'

The Rev. Jim Holley Jr., who sat in his home in Palmer Park that night, said the splendid events, remote in God’s creation, created somewhat of a conundrum, given his approach to faith.

Were we not implicating the bold lesson in Genesis of the banishment from Eden? Were we not getting a bit too cocky, we mere mortals?

“First of all, I’m just fascinated by space,” said Holley, who just began his 48th year as pastor of Little Rock Baptist Church on Woodward. “But I had mixed feelings when they got there.

“Because I feel like, as a minister, they are messing with God’s creation. But at the same time, I was just sort of amused and in awe by NASA really accomplishing this mission.

“So I had mixed feelings about it from a theological standpoint and then from a practical standpoint.”

To this day, Holley views the grand accomplishment from opposing sides.

The striving of humans is to be honored. Their immodest pride is not.

“I still have some ambivalence about it,” he said. “I really do. I really do.”

'We all applauded'

Like many Detroiters, Lee Rhymes has been back and forth from the South in his lifetime.

On the night humans first walked on the moon, he and 11 friends got together for the occasion in Jackson, Mississippi.

“Twelve of us, we’re looking at it,” he said.

“They had sent Armstrong to the moon and to walk on the moon, at that time.

“When we saw him walking, we all applauded. That was special.”

At 72, Rhymes said he thinks humans should keep striving, and space is a place to do it.

“You know, I think the vision is that they’re going to try to make people live on the moon, either there or Mars.”  

gkrupa@detroitnews.com

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