The 1969 event, broadcast on TV and radio to millions, was a giant step for mass media

By Caren Weiner
Updated July 18, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Final frontier indeed: Though Cold War space-race mania had sent Americans and Soviets into orbit by 1962, walking on the moon was still the stuff of science fiction — until July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took the ”giant leap for mankind” that became the first international mega-media event.

On radio, home TVs, and huge public screens set up in New York’s Central Park and Kennedy International Airport, London’s Trafalgar Square, Paris’ science museum, and the streets of Seoul, half a billion earthlings followed Armstrong and Edwin ”Buzz” Aldrin’s two-hour-plus moon walk. Tribesmen in rural Zambia listened to news reports on government-issued transistor radios. Even Pravda put the lunar landing on page 1, under the unintentionally inaccurate headline THEY HAVE MOONED!

Intermittent snippets of the mission had appeared on TV since the launch July 16, but on the day of the landing, the three networks preempted all programming for 30-plus hours of news coverage (costing $11 million to $12 million in lost ad revenues and production expenses), including interviews with scientists, cartoons of landing procedures, and low-tech simulations with scale models. To leaven the science-speak with art, ABC asked Duke Ellington to write and perform a piece for the occasion, ”Moon Maiden.” NBC invited James Earl Jones to give a dramatic reading and Rod McKuen to recite poetry. And CBS called on sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke as well as Buster Crabbe (film’s Buck Rogers).

Today, space shuttle launches are routine, and the public seems to focus mainly on mishaps like June’s Mir collision. But with Pathfinder‘s July 4 Mars landing, NASA hopes to renew interest in space triumphs — in part by showing Pathfinder footage on the newest mass medium, the Net.

Reflecting the public’s fascination with space and futurism are Zager & Evans’ pessimistic No. 1 pop hit ”In the Year 2525” and Oliver’s upbeat, boppy No. 3 song, ”Good Morning Starshine,” from the musical Hair. (Neither act would have a hit after 1969.)

The top-rated TV show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, launches the career of bikini-clad dancer (and future First Wives Club star) Goldie Hawn.

Philip Roth hits pay dirt with his third novel, the seminal No. 1 best-seller Portnoy’s Complaint; the title becomes an enduring moniker for a certain type of Jewish-American ethnic self-consciousness.

In the real world, the Kennedy clan regroups after Ted’s July 19 auto accident in Chappaquiddick, Mass., in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned and the senator waited eight hours to alert police. The incident has haunted Kennedy throughout his ongoing 35-year political career.