When American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon on July 21, 1969, New Zealanders listened transfixed to the radio as a series of crackly words signified a gargantuan achievement. They would not see grainy TV images until hours later and only then thanks to a massive trans-Tasman effort and Kiwi ingenuity. Jane Phare reports.
It was nearly home time on a winter Monday afternoon when school children all over New Zealand were told to shush and listen. At 2.56pm the Man in the Moon was about to become a man on the Moon.
For anyone under 60, memories of that "small-step-giant-leap" moment are as blurry as the image of a man named Armstrong cavorting on the moonscape. My older brother Roger, then a third-former at Wellington College, remembers being in woodwork class when the boys were told to down tools.
One giant leap for mankind
They, like people all over New Zealand, listened as the now-famous words of an astronaut crackled out through speakers: "That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind."
Aucklander Bruce Duncan listened to the Moon-landing broadcast at Glendowie College and then remembers seeing the Moon showing faintly in the sky as he was walking home.
"It was unbelievable to think they were up there."
In nearby St Heliers Primary School, Toni Millar remembers that winter Monday; the prefab classroom smelled dank and the teacher, Miss Parsons, had the pot belly going. They sat listening to the radio as a man talked from the Moon.
In the lead-up to that moment, interest had reached world-wide fever pitch with billions of people following the astronauts' daring and dangerous mission to outer space since Apollo 11 had blasted off from Cape Canaveral's Kenny Space Center in Florida four days earlier.
In New Zealand, shops and dairies ran out of batteries to power transistor radios and Kiwis invented space-age noms de plume for their Golden Kiwi lottery tickets.
Come the big day, office workers throughout New Zealand abandoned their desks and interrupted meetings to gather around radios. In Wellington, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake listened to the radio throughout the day and later, in a Cabinet meeting, ministers were updated as the Moon landing grew closer.
Fly the Moon to me
Travellers at Auckland International Airport got first-hand news that afternoon when Air New Zealand announced "the arrival of Eagle Flight No 1 on the Moon."
Department stores joined in the celebration, piping "moon music" titles like Fly Me to the Moon and Everyone's Gone to the Moon on their sound systems.
But no one in New Zealand actually saw it live. It would be another four and half hours before families gathered round their black-and-white TV sets to watch a grainy image of Armstrong climbing down the ladder from Apollo 11's lunar module, the Eagle, and become the first human to moonwalk.
Kiwis always knew they would not see the lunar landing live; they were used to day-late coverage. Back in the 60s, TV viewers watched international news the following night after it had come via satellite to Sydney, been copied on to video tape and flown across the Tasman on commercial flights.
They would have seen the Moon landing a day late, too, if it had not been for Kiwi ingenuity, meticulous planning and a deal done involving the New Zealand and Australian governments, the police, the ABC, the national broadcaster NZBC, the RNZAF, and Customs and air traffic officials in both Sydney and Wellington. New Zealanders would see the Moon landing that night, come hell or high water.
RNZAF pilot Gavin Trethewey and navigator Mike Hill took off from Ohakea Air force base in a Canberra Bomber on the morning of July 21 and flew to Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport. The pair watched the Moon landing on a TV while waiting for staff at the ABC to make copies of the 40-minute tapes and rush them to the airport under police escort.
Trethewey, now 79 and still flying vintage aircraft for Warbirds, reckons he set a trans-Tasman record on the way home, pushing the bomber to its limits and arriving at Wellington Airport at 7pm, two hours and 25 minutes later.
New Zealand Customs gave the precious cargo quick clearance and the tapes were sped by car, with a traffic escort, to NZBC's studio in Wellington. They arrived in time to be shown on the 7.35pm news that night to the whole of the country, in itself a feat of Kiwi ingenuity.
Back then New Zealand television still operated as four separate regional broadcasting services in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, so not everyone could receive a signal from Wellington.
Retired journalist and a former head of news and current affairs at TVNZ, Rick Carlyon kept notes about the trans-Tasman, whole-of-government lunar plan and remembers TV technicians jury-rigging a makeshift network link the length of the country, from one main centre to the next, so all of New Zealand could watch the broadcast simultaneously. And in case anyone missed it the first time round, the NZBC showed the Moon landing twice more that night.
"Fortunately it worked on the night," he says. "We take everything so much for granted now. If something happens somewhere in the world we expect to see it instantly."
It was similar Kiwi ingenuity that gave Christchurch TV viewers coverage of the Wahine disaster on April 10, 1968, a tragedy that claimed the lives of more than 50 people after the ship struck Barrett Reef in Wellington harbour.
The 734 crew and passengers were forced to abandon the stricken vessel in wild conditions after it capsized. It was a slowly unfolding tragedy that gripped the nation as rescuers frantically hauled exhausted bodies, including babies and children, out of boiling seas, and bodies piled up on the beaches.
Carlyon recalls a "very determined cameraman" who drove flat out from Christchurch to Kaikoura with his camera, recorded Wahine footage in front of a black and white TV in a home that had signal from Wellington, and rushed back so that it could be broadcast in Christchurch that night.
"It was pretty Heath Robinson," Carlyon says.
Auckland was not so lucky. Wahine footage was not shown there until the follow night's news, 24 hours after Wellington and Christchurch saw it. Carlyon made a note in his diary that the NZBC's failure to get footage to Auckland was a "black mark" in its history.
"They just blitzed us"
Carlyon, in the Auckland TV newsroom at the time, was even more furious to find full coverage of the Wahine disaster in the Herald the next morning.
"They just blitzed us."
It was the Wahine sinking, the Moon landing and the upcoming New Zealand general election, in November 1969, that pushed the NZBC into doing something about its fragmented coverage.
Four months after the Moon landing the four regional broadcasting services finally became a fully linked- up television network after a rush job to make sure the whole of New Zealand could watch the election.
Nixon had a secret Moon-disaster speech
In hindsight the lunar miracle Kiwis gathered to listen to 50 years ago on the afternoon of July 21 could well have become a global day of mourning. So risky was the mission that American President Richard Nixon had a secret "In the event of Moon disaster" speech ready should it all go wrong. It began, "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace."
To the billions of worldwide viewers listening and watching, the Moon landing seemed uneventful. But after years of planning by America's best scientific and aeronautical brains, exhaustive training and a multi-million budget, it nearly went very wrong when the Eagle overshot the safe landing spot and headed towards an area strewn with boulders.
Alarms shrieked and Armstrong's pulse soared
In the style of a Hollywood blockbuster, alarms shrieked in the cramped cabin as its crude on-board computer - with less power than a mobile phone - became overloaded. Fuel ran dangerously low and although outwardly calm, Armstrong's monitored pulse rate more than doubled. Under instructions from Houston, Armstrong took control and manually flew the lunar module, frantically trying to find a clear, flat place to land.
With less than 30 seconds of fuel left, the Eagle's four spidery legs finally touched down on a fine layer of charcoal-like lunar dust. Roughly 400,000 kilometres away on Earth, Houston controllers gasped collective sighs of relief when they heard Armstrong say, "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed."
As those listening around the world erupted in cheers, clapping and tears, Houston's spacecraft communicator Charles Duke stuttered "Roger, Twan… Tranquillity, we copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we're breathing again, thanks a lot ... be advised there are lots of smiling faces in this room, and all over the world."
A euphoric President Nixon, who had kept up a marathon viewing since the launch, tucked away his disaster speech and instead spoke to the astronauts from the White House's Oval Room.
"Because of what you have done," Nixon told them, "the heavens have become part of man's world ... For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth."
It was indeed a moment cherished by hundreds of thousands of employees who had worked relentlessly on the US$29 billion Apollo progamme since President John F Kennedy issued a challenge in 1961.
Fuelled by the Cold War and stiff competition in the space race, Kennedy wanted America to land a man on the Moon, and return him safely to Earth. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, did not live to see his dream come true.
Circling high above the Moon in the mother ship Columbia, Nixon's prayer for a safe return was playing on the mind of astronaut Mike Collins during his lonely 21-hour wait for the lunar module's return. His "secret terror" was that the Eagle's engine wouldn't restart or the module would fail to blast off, forcing him to return to Earth alone.
"If they fail to rise from the surface or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home ... but I will be a marked man for life and I know it," he said at the time.
But come back they did. Eight days after launch, the three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific, 1600km south-west of Hawaii. Kennedy's dream had come true. The Americans had beaten the Russians to the Moon and back, and survived to tell the tale.