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Column: Man Walked on the Moon, and We All Watched

It was, after all, only a boot-crunching dust. You wouldn’t think the sight would affect so many or change so much.

But we saw it, on TV. We saw it and were changed, along with the human world around us.

Like many readers, I was sitting in a room with my family July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong hopped off that ladder onto the moon. I nearly missed it, plumb forgot, but then I happened into the living room, where my parents and huge assortment of sibs were sitting in a half-circle, watching.

There had to be TV. The United States wanted to show the world proof we’d beaten the Russians in the space race. More, it was a TV age: Many of us had watched Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down live in 1963, watched a president’s funeral, watched Our World in 1967, the first live global television link, featuring, among many other things, a studio Beatles performance from London of All You Need Is Love. We believed TV shrank the world and put it in our pockets.

(And that is a measure of what’s changed. Back then, “the power of TV” was praised all the time, and we could feel it, when the Beatles played and men moonwalked live. Today, that power is a given, unremarked, invisible.)

When the TV picture snapped to the audiovisual link from the moon, it was hard to see at first. Shadow silhouetted Armstrong, behind him the black blank of space, slashed with the arc of the lunar horizon. The contrast settings were wrong; on some TVs you could barely see Armstrong. It was surreal; we had to adjust, to “make it out.”

Why was the picture so poor? It was a picture of a picture. The TV camera on the Apollo 11 Lunar Module was a “slow-scan,” narrowband TV camera, used in early space exploration because it saved bandwidth and could be transmitted over voice channels. Problem: At a pokey 10 frames a second, it wasn’t easily compatible with broadcast TV.

So a broadcast-TV camera was pointed at a 10-inch direct monitor. That noisy signal was encoded, processed, sent to Houston, and thence to the world.

“We’re really seeing it,” said someone in the room, either Mom or one of my eight brothers and sisters. That was the point: Bad picture or not, it was enough to realize we were seeing it, to connect. That live image reached 600 million people that evening. I can’t have been the only one with my scalp prickling. My family’s certainly were not the only smiles in the world, realizing history in front of us.

So the picture was garbled, and Armstrong’s rehearsed line, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” was garbled. What wasn’t was the reception in each mind watching. If you want to be moved, look up some of the pictures of the TV-watching crowds across the world at that moment, some small, some large, just gazing.

Michael Collins, orbiting the moon in the Columbia command spacecraft, had no TV. The capsule communicator in Houston quipped, “I guess you’re about the only person that doesn’t have TV coverage of the scene.”

That was, and remains, among the longest-ever direct communications links among human beings, vaulting 239,000 miles in seconds, ping-ponging as described above, and reaching so many minds. It remains a metaphor for the amazing things people can do. It came at a troubled time: When I think of it, the troubles come back to mind. And so does the astonishment. Armstrong descending is an image of what’s possible.

A very few people don’t think it ever happened. And, to be sure, with war abroad and social upheaval across the land, this country had enough work on Earth without busying itself in the heavens. But it signaled a change in the world, a different consciousness of our planet and ourselves. It is a communal memory, too, shared by this race of gifted creatures, video, vivid, telling and retelling.

John Timpane is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.