For months in advance, the planned U.S. voyage to the moon was plastered in the headlines. Nearly seven years after President John F. Kennedy pledged that Americans would land on the moon by the end of the decade, Neil Armstrong took one small step and one giant leap for mankind on July 20, 1969, to usher in a new era of space exploration. The next morning, the word “moon” appeared on the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune no fewer than 23 times.
Fifty years have passed since Apollo 11’s lunar landing and humans first walked on the moon. It was a defining moment for a generation, and millions of people around the globe remember huddling around televisions to watch with bated breath as two American astronauts did what many, for eons, thought impossible.
Far fewer may recall the chatter surrounding the Apollo 11 mission as the saga unfolded. No one knew exactly what would happen when men touched down on the lunar surface, and the uncertainty of the mission fueled an avalanche of speculation.
Would Armstrong and fellow space pioneer Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin perish in their attempt to make history? Would they bring back souvenirs for their wives, or perhaps moon germs that would cause an epidemic of some alien disease on Earth?
The Minneapolis Tribune and the Minneapolis Star, then competitors publishing in the morning and afternoon, respectively, documented it all. As Apollo 11 cruised to the moon and back, here are some of the strange, interesting and forgotten stories ripped from the archives.
Would the Russians beat us to the lunar surface?
For as many articles as there were chronicling the Apollo 11 mission, it seemed there were nearly as many keeping tabs on Luna 15, a Soviet spacecraft orbiting the moon at the same time. Many feared Luna would interfere with the Americans’ landing or sneak on to the lunar surface to bring a soil sample back to Moscow before Apollo’s return.
“I find it very odd that the Russians should launch a satellite of such mediocre performance at the time of Apollo,” British scientist Sir Bernard Lovell told the Associated Press at the time. “This makes us feel that something else is going to happen.”
Many consider the fight to land the first man on the moon the peak of the space race, the yearslong Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union that sprung from the nuclear arms race between the two countries after World War II.
But despite tensions between the rival nations, there was some recognition that Apollo’s accomplishment was a milestone for the human race that transcended borders. Then-President Richard Nixon had the American crew leave the medals of two fallen Soviet astronauts alongside three of those from the United States who died during space exploration efforts.
No one knew what would happen when the astronauts tried to leave the moon ...
The newspapers made sure everyone knew the stakes. If Armstrong and Aldrin’s lunar module could not fire up its engine, there was no rescue vehicle that could save them before their 43-hour oxygen supply ran out.
“Death awaits the Apollo astronauts if they become marooned on the moon — and they know it,” an AP reporter wrote two days ahead of the landing.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) ultimately decided space rescue would be “too difficult and costly.” The agency equipped the spacecraft with a number of backup systems to minimize the chances of failure, according to news reports, which detailed a scenario in which Armstrong and Aldrin were stranded on the moon while a third astronaut, Michael Collins, “circles helplessly overhead” in lunar orbit.
"That’s an unpleasant thing to think about, and we’ve chosen not to think about that up to the present time," Armstrong was quoted saying in a front-page Tribune the day before the lunar landing.
… Or what would happen when they came back to Earth
Even if the astronauts managed to successfully leave the moon, would they make it home unharmed?
The AP reported a naval crew preparing to retrieve the Apollo 11 astronauts after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean were running into more sharks than any previous spacecraft recoveries. They were ready to launch a wooden boat filled with armed sailors “to protect the spacemen and the recovery swimmers.”
Escape from the Pacific Ocean did not guarantee safety. A team of medics prepared to quarantine the astronauts for at least three weeks “to avoid contaminating earth with germs from the moon, if any such organisms exist,” one article said.
“If there are moon germs, they would probably be a hearty species that might spread on the much more hospitable earth,” a Tribune reporter speculated. “And they might spread like wildfire because terrestrial life would lack immunity to them.”
The moon landing conspiracy theories are as old as the mission itself. At the time, some believed the entire enterprise was a giant hoax — including Samuel Shenton, secretary of the International Flat Earth Society in 1969, who spoke to the Minneapolis Tribune’s European correspondent in England.
“We are living in an age of great deception,” said Shenton, whose group was “less convinced that the earth was flat than it distrust[ed] the proposition that the world is a ball-shaped planet whirling around the sun.”
Others ate their words with grace. Famed journalist and commentator Molly Ivins — then a cub reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune — wrote about a trio of University of Minnesota professors who 22 years before the Apollo mission had argued man could never possibly step foot on the moon.
That they were wrong came as a pleasant surprise spurring a change of heart. One went so far as to say that it was “pretty definitely possible that we can get a man on Mars now. But it’ll cost a lot of money.”
And, of course, the local angles
Naturally, reporters rushed to find Minnesota connections to the story riveting the world.
One Tribune article described how Armstrong and Aldrin maneuvered around a football field-sized crater using a pistol-grip hand control made by Honeywell Inc. workers in the Twin Cities. Another reported that the astronauts would munch on special "space food sticks" — which taste like candy and come in chocolate, caramel and peanut butter flavors — developed by Pillsbury in Minneapolis.
Jim Klobuchar, longtime Minneapolis Star columnist and father of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, wrote about the reactions of Minnesotans to the storied event — or lack thereof. A waitress at the 620 Club in Minneapolis guessed that “about the same percentage of customers at the front bar here are ignoring the television as they do the Twins’ game or the 10 o’clock news.”
A Tribune editorial published two days before the astronauts’ return to Earth called for the same energy and teamwork that made the moon landing possible to be put toward efforts to end poverty or pollution or the arms race.
“The landing of men on the surface of the moon is being hailed as man’s greatest step since evolution began millions of years ago,” the paper wrote. “Once this has been said, other descriptions seem palid by comparison.”