Skip to main content

The start: July 16, 1969 – 50 years ago!

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched from Cape Kennedy, Fla. On board were Neil Armstrong (of Wapakoneta, Ohio, and a graduate of Purdue University), Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Two hours and 44 minutes after launch (one and one-half revolutions of the Earth), the S-IVB rocket stage fired and started Apollo into a translunar orbit.

Collins, 88, and Aldrin, 89, are still living, Armstrong died in 2012. On July 17, they left Earth orbit and headed for the moon.

On July 18, Armstrong and Aldrin put on their spacesuits and climbed from Columbia (the lunar orbiter) through the tunnel to Eagle (the lunar lander). This was just a checkout. They went back to Columbia after this procedure.

On July 19, while on the back side of the moon and out of contact with the Earth, the crew executed the first maneuver to put Apollo 11 in lunar orbit (otherwise, they would have flown on by).

On July 20, 109 hours and 42 minutes after launch, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Eagle again, made a final check, and the Eagle undocked from Columbia. Partially manually piloted by Armstrong, the Eagle landed 0 degrees, 41 minutes, 15 seconds north moon latitude and 23 degrees, 26 minutes east moon longitude. This was about four miles downrange from the predicted touchdown point and occurred almost one and one-half minutes earlier than scheduled.

Armstrong stepped out, and Aldrin followed 20 minutes later. Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours and 26 minutes on the moon’s surface. They went back to the Eagle for a seven-hour rest period before firing the engines to ascend to orbit and mate up with Columbia. (How did they do that? I would have let Houston scream orders in my earpiece and stayed on the surface until the last possible minute!).

On July 24, 1969, Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 13 miles from the recovery ship the USS Hornet. I did not know it at the time, but I think those eight days – July 16-24, 1969 – were the best days of the United States in my lifetime.

In the summer of 1969, the country was slowly recovering from horrible civil rights riots (as a result of many issues, one of which was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just over a year earlier), the Vietnam War was raging and NASA was costing a boatload of money. Despite all this, the national debt as compared to GDP was only 35% as compared to 104.1% now.

The space program of the 1960s, up to and including the lunar landings starting with Apollo 11, was accomplished with slide rules and handmade engineering drawings. Your Smartphone likely has more computing power than all of NASA in 1969 (not verified, but a good estimate).

A couple of great movies to go along with this anniversary include:

• “The Dish” (2000), with Sam Neill in the leading role, is the story of a small town in Australia, Parkes, which happened to have the largest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. Due to timing, the TV signal from Eagle came here and was broadcast to the world. It is a true story, told in a comedic fashion, of how this tiny town played a pivotal role in the moon landing.

• “Hidden Figures” (2016) tells the story of the “computers” (humans) who did the calculations by hand for the early space program. This is also a true story, and many of these brilliant women were African American and have since been honored by NASA and the U.S. government. Stars in this movie are Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe with support by Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and others.

I thought I would end with a few personal notes.

On Labor Day Weekend, 1969, there was a homecoming parade for Neil Armstrong in Wapakoneta on a Saturday. Two college friends and I attended. We went up there Friday night and camped out at Indian Lake. It was a nice night, so we did not bother pitching our tent. A ranger came along in the middle of the night and told us we were supposed to pitch a tent. After he chewed us out, we went back to sleep.

On Saturday morning, we got up early. We had car trouble (one of the guys had an old 1960 Chevy, and it had an oil leak). Undeterred, we started hitchhiking to Wapakoneta. No one would pick us up; except, finally, the Ohio Highway Patrol did so and took us into town. That's the only time I have ever ridden in a patrol car of any kind.

The parade started at the high school stadium with appropriate speeches, then wound around town. By one o’clock, members of the Purdue Marching Band (there, of course, to honor their famous graduate, along with the Purdue “Golden Girl” drum major) were starting to pass out from the heat, so the music was drowned out by the wailing sirens as band members were scooped up and taken to the hospital.

After retiring, Neil Armstrong ended up in the Aerospace Department at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering, while I was earning my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. He had a modest office, just like all the other professors. He would never let anyone let him go to the front of the line at the copying machine. He insisted on standing in line with everyone else (some of the other professors needed to learn this humility).

Now, my longest-term consulting client today (I will have worked for them off and on for 26 years this November), decided in the summer of 2017 to build a paper mill in Wapakoneta.

My team and I go there every month to monitor progress. As part of my assignment, in the fall of 2017, I made an initial trip to Wapakoneta to visit the economic development executive (who happens to be a Wapakoneta native) and tour the proposed site. As we exchanged pleasantries, I told him the last time I had been in Wapakoneta was on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, 1969.

He looked at me kind of funny, thought for a minute, brightened up and said, “I was here that day, too.” He was in about the seventh grade.

We will be starting production on this paper machine around Oct. 1, just a little over 50 years from the anniversary of the moon landing. Amazing on so many levels.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at


Add new comment

This is not for publication.
This is not for publication.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
Article comments are not posted immediately to the Web site. Each submission must be approved by the Web site editor, who may edit content for appropriateness. There may be a delay of 24-48 hours for any submission while the web site editor reviews and approves it. Note: All information on this form is required. Your telephone number and email address is for our use only, and will not be attached to your comment.