Orbital View: The First Moon Landing

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s an extraordinary sight for today:

Back on Earth, on July 20, 1969, people all over this world gathered to watch humankind’s first steps on another world. But in South Africa, where TV was banned under apartheid, the only way to tune in to the moon landing was via radio. In the July 1999 issue of The Atlantic, Rob Nixon, who was a teenager in South Africa during the landing, remembered:

Faced with the prospect of missing the moonwalk, even conservative white South Africans began to grumble. … Some months after NASA’s triumph, the government sought to quell local discontent by arranging limited viewings of the taped landing. We had to line up at a planetarium: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for whites; Tuesdays and Thursdays for blacks.

The turnout was immense. Policemen with German shepherds and Dobermans straining at the leash patrolled the line. After hours of waiting I entered a barricaded enclosure and joined twenty other people seated on collapsible metal chairs. A sullen moustached man tugged a sash, a purple velvet curtain slid back, and a television was revealed. For fifteen minutes I witnessed a lunar landing that seemed no stranger than the unearthly presence of that black box in the room. Then the curtain was closed again and we filed out, abandoning our seats to the next twenty people in line.

The moon landing, according to Nixon, “marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid government’s conviction that South Africa could remain a fortress against television.”

It was the kind of event that couldn’t fail to unite people in fear and wonder and triumph—a historical moment made for precisely the unifying and equalizing effects of television that the oppressive regime feared. After Apollo 11, white South Africans campaigned for TV, arguing—rather ironically, at the height of the civil rights movement—that this technological deficiency made the country look backward, reactionary. Like the velvet curtain at the viewing Nixon attended, a wall separating South Africa from the rest of the world had slid back for a moment and could never be closed quite as tightly again.

After all, a glimpse of outer space can provide profound perspective. In our September 1874 issue, N.S. Shaler reflected on what was then the recent scientific conclusion that the moon could not support human life. He concluded:

The picture which modern science paints of the moon is cold and hard, and at first sight saddening. It is no more the land of our dreams, a refuge for those who find our blooming earth too hard. … With the telescope we seem to go with the quickness of sight away from the present, to stand in the face of primeval chaos. … Standing in the presence of a worse than ruined world, we feel our confidence in the universe to be weakly founded. Beneficence, creative power, omniscience—all the great words we coin for use on earth seem to have no place here. …

But with time …. the persistent student of the moon will find its silence and peace wonderfully attractive. … He will find it a physical Nirvana where matter has lost its eagerness and endless longings to rest in peace. When he comes back to the earth again … we are sure that he will be the more content with the world and all its ways.

Standing in the presence of a worse than ruined world, we feel our confidence in the universe to be weakly founded. It’s a sentiment that resonates painfully today, nearly 150 years later, in a month of violence and uncertainty around the world. Which makes it a good time, perhaps, to look up at the moon and back at the moon landing 47 years ago. It’s a sight that brings peace and contentment, yes. But it also brings a reminder of progress.

Earth rises above the moon’s horizon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission in July 1969. (NASA / Reuters)

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