Looking back at how Utahns, Americans reacted to the moon landing 50 years ago

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Jul. 19, 2019 at 7:47 p.m.

Editor's note:This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.SALT LAKE CITY — Fifty years ago Saturday, man first landed on the moon. Soon after landing, Neil Armstrong stepped from the Apollo 11 spacecraft and uttered one of the most memorable lines in history: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

What Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and the whole space program accomplished grabbed the world’s attention. The broadcast of the landing was seen by 93% of anyone watching TV in the U.S. at the time, according to NBC News. An estimated 95% of Americans owned a television in 1969.

Utah was no exception to the national and global celebration. Newspapers from across the state had big bold letters. “Man walks on the moon,” the Deseret News printed along with a large photo shot from the moon. The Provo Daily Herald described it as “America’s Proudest Day.”

It was an ambitious project, and years of failure and heartbreak — such as the Apollo 1 disaster — left some skeptical the project was possible. The project’s boldness appeared to leave Utahns as curious as everyone else in the world.

Of course, this was in the middle of a space race, during which the Soviet Union had accomplished many of the space achievements before the U.S. during the late 1950s and 1960s.

Of course, the Apollo 11 mission dominated headlines in Utah papers in the weeks leading up to July 16, 1969, when the spacecraft launched toward the moon. The July 16, 1969, edition of the Deseret News indicates how big of a deal Apollo 11 was at the time the spacecraft launched. The header was as large as it would be after the moon landing. “It’s Go! Go! Go! — All the way!” it read. Prior to the moon landing, President Richard Nixon also declared Monday, July 21, 1969, as “Moon Day” in preparation of the spacecraft landing.

Preparation for the historic event actually created some confusion in Utah, partially due to its proximity to Pioneer Day. Gov. Calvin Rampton declared all state employees, minus those needed, would have that day off, according to a July 17, 1969, Deseret News article. However, at that point Rampton didn’t know whether it would be a state holiday, and some municipalities also weren’t sure if it would be a state or federal holiday, which cased confusion with schedules. The Utah Daily Chronicle reported that it was declared a state holiday, but University of Utah classes weren’t canceled.

Meanwhile, Utah’s newspapers carried wires helping readers know when the major moments, such as the first-ever moonwalk, would happen during the television programming. The Provo Daily Herald summed up what it was like for editors trying to pick what made it on the front page on July 21, 1969, with this: “Today was the easiest in history for editors who must make a ‘top story’ decision. What else, of course, but the moon landing, and The Daily Herald devotes its entire front page to ‘America’s Proudest Day.’”

“Even the entire front page can’t do justice to the moon story,” they continued. That said a lot. Competing stories — including the Ted Kennedy car crash that resulted in a woman's death at Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, and stories about unrest in other countries — were pushed to the back of the paper.

In that same print edition, the United Press International (UPI) reported about a group of about 10,000 people gathered at Central Park in New York City to watch Armstrong walk on the moon.

“The throng grew silent as it realized it was actually watching an American doing what no man had ever done. There was cheering and whistling when Armstrong was down safely, but many of the watchers remained transfixed, as if unbelieving,” the outlet reported in the wire article. “A policeman said, to no one in particular, ‘It’s a great day for mankind.’”

That seems to be how Utahns reacted as well, based on the few papers that are digitized from the time.

KSL.com asked people through social media what they remembered from that weekend. Many respondents who recalled the day remember watching it on TV, which matches up with the television statistics.

“My dad came out and told us to come inside to watch the moon landing. I didn’t want to come in. We were right in the middle of a game! Besides, it sounded very boring. My dad said he wanted us to see it so we could someday tell our own children that we had witnessed it,” Laurie Densley wrote in response. “When I asked what the big deal was, he told me no one had ever been there before, and maybe Neal Armstrong would fall through the moon’s surface. Nice ploy! I ran right in to see it after I heard that. It really was an unforgettable experience. I never did have children of my own, but I taught school for 30 years and made my students listen to me tell the tale each year of how I saw it back in 1969.”

“We were camping in Idaho and gathered around a very small TV and watched while we also looked up at the moon,” Pam Jenkins, added in another response.

It's safe to say it's one of those moments those who were lucky enough to be alive at the time will never forget.

Events to honor the anniversary

Its impact 50 years later is also why there are a few events being held to honor the achievement in Utah:

  • The Clark Planetarium, for example, has held a week’s worth of events to honor the anniversary. That includes a free screening of the PBS KIDS special, “Ready Jet Go! One Small Step” and other events for families Saturday. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • The Salem City Library, 59 S. Main in Salem, is hosting “Moon Landing Anniversary” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. There will be treats and a “big surprise prize” winner. The event is free.
  • The Provo Library, 550 N. University Ave., is hosting space-themed activities and will have treats and prizes for all ages on Saturday. A broadcast of NASA’s Moon Landing Anniversary coverage will also be played. The event runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is free to the public.
  • The Salt Lake Bees are hosting “Apollo 11 Night” Saturday at Smith’s Ballpark, 77 W. 1300 South in Salt Lake City, which includes “fun-filled science and moon activities” that will be showcased throughout the game, according to the team’s website. Normal ticket prices apply.
  • Dead Horse Point State Park will host the "One Small Step for Man" event, State Road 313 in Moab, at 10 p.m. on Saturday.

Carter Williams

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