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This week in history: Neil Armstrong steps on the moon

On July 20, 1969, Chicagoans watched as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Here’s a look at the coverage from the momentous event.

People watch moon landing in Chicago store window
A group of Chicagoans stand in front of a store window and watch the moon landing on television on July 20, 1969.
From the Sun-Times archive.

As reported in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

On the morning of Sunday, July 20, 1969, Chicagoans kept one eye on the sky and the other on their daily paper. Since Wednesday, all news centered on the three-astronaut crew of Apollo 11, which was scheduled to land on the moon that day. If everything went well, man would walk on the moon.

In Houston, Sun-Times correspondent William Hines covered the expected — though nevertheless extremely suspenseful — 34 minutes in which Apollo 11 floated behind the moon, coasted towards the surface and lost contact with mission control.

To successfully maneuver into lunar orbit, the ship’s engine needed to gulp “12 tons of fuel in six minutes of operation, reducing Apollo’s weight from 48 tons to 36 between 12:22 p.m. and 12:28 p.m.,” Hines wrote.

For 10 minutes after that, “it was the case here at mission control of no news being good news. Each passing second after 12:37 p.m. added to the likelihood that a crucial lunar orbit insertion maneuver had been carried out successfully on schedule,” Hines reported.

Had the ship resumed communications at 12:37 p.m., the reporter noted that it would have spelled disaster for the mission and ended the chance to make history.

As the astronauts got their first close-up glimpse of the moon’s surface, commander Neil Armstrong told mission control that no training, simulations or rehearsals could have prepared him for what he was seeing, Hines said.

“The pictures and maps brought back by Apollos 8 and 9 have given us a very good preview of what to look at here,” Armstrong said. “It looks very much like the pictures; but like the difference between watching a real football game and one on TV, there’s no substitution for actually being here.”

Gazing out at the moon’s surface, Armstrong later quipped, “The view is worth the price of the trip.” Hines said experts estimated the trip to the moon cost $3.5 million, but others put that price tag closer to the $1 billion mark. (From 1960 through 1973, the Apollo program spent more than $25 billion developing the rockets and other equipment for those missions.)

That night, a Sun-Times photographer headed to State and Madison downtown to capture Chicagoans who watched the moon landing from their homes and storefront windows. Outside a Walgreens, residents stood reading the electronic news ticker near State and Madison.

People stand outside a Walgreens to read the electronic news ticker announcing the moon landing on July 20, 1969.
Chicagoans gather outside a Walgreens to read the electronic news ticker announcing the moon landing on July 20, 1969.
From the Sun-Times archive.

The moon landing happened on a Sunday long after the papers had finished publishing for the day. The Chicago Daily News picked up the story the next day with a full-page photo of the astronauts unveiling the American flag on the moon and an accompanying story.

“Neil Armstrong, commander of lunar landing craft Eagle, set first foot on the powdery surface at 9:56 p.m. (Chicago time) with these words: ‘One small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind.’ Twenty minutes later he was joined by Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. The two U.S. astronauts explored the moon surface for 2 hours and 11 minutes before returning to the Eagle,” the paper reported.