Alan Shepherd took off from Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961, to became the first American in space, narrowly missing the title of "first man in space" because Soviet cosmonaut Juri Gagarin made one orbit around Earth three weeks earlier.
I watched Shepherd's takeoff on a black-and-white television in a motel somewhere in Virginia on a vacation with my mom and dad. I was only 5, but I was able to grasp that this was big.
Today, kids often have their own TVs and sometimes even parents opt for cable channels over the news. But as children of the 1960s, we watched what our parents watched on four local channels, three of which offered coverage from the major networks. With a World War II vet for a father, we got a heavy dose of news.
It wasn't Sunday evening in our house unless "The Twentieth Century" with Walter Cronkite was on TV. I grew up actually feeling I was part of the WWII era because Cronkite used war documentaries to tell the stories of battles and people. I knew that my dad and uncles had served, so I realized the men in those film images could have been them.
Living in the Cold War era, we had air-raid shelters in public buildings and knew that when the fire sirens blasted a certain way, it would be time to take cover. When we had our first air-raid drill at Hebron Elementary School in Penn Hills, I knew it was because the Soviets might drop a nuclear bomb on us. Even as a first-grader, I didn't see how piling against the wall with our eyes shielded would save us from the bombs I saw dropped on Japan on Cronkite's show.
The Gagarin-Shepherd ventures into space launched the Space Race. We were fighting a war with the Soviets to see which country would come out on top in space, which in retrospect was probably better than fighting an actual war on Earth.
Through my elementary school years, teachers wheeled the large black-and-white TVs into our classrooms so we could watch each of NASA's takeoffs and landings. It all seemed routine and effortless. I really wasn't thinking that in just a few years, man would walk on the moon.
Then disaster struck on Jan. 27, 1967. Gus Grissom, the second American in space, was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee when the interior of the command module caught fire during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Kennedy (which Cape Canaveral had been renamed to honor the late president).
It didn't stop the space program. NASA continued the quest, and, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off toward the moon with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins aboard. On July 20, Americans heard the words, "The Eagle has landed," as the lunar module touched the surface of the moon.
Just six hours later, Armstrong stepped out of the module, down the ladder and, to a worldwide audience, said the enduring words: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." (Later, Armstrong would say he actually said, "one small step for a man," but that's a side note in history.)
My dad's eyes welled and I remember feeling goosebumps as Armstrong touched his foot to the surface of the moon. That we could come together as a country united for that moment—well, that was almost one of those "you had to be there to understand" times.
In 1969, America was torn apart by drugs, violence, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the quest for women's rights and environmental concerns. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy just a year earlier had sparked more tensions among our citizens.
To see us come together for this nationally led effort that took us all to the moon—if only via television—was momentous. Nearly every American, despite our differences, had a feeling of national pride. After all, it was our tax dollars that enabled NASA to accomplish its mission, so each family had a little investment.
On that day, America won the Space Race. To quote NASA's website: "The national effort that enabled Astronaut Neil Armstrong to speak those words as he stepped onto the lunar surface, fulfilled a dream as old as humanity."
After this, it seemed the world exploded. We can thank NASA for LEDs, artificial limbs, anti-icing systems and firefighters' gear, among other things. Technologies we take for granted today—calculators, cell phones, Internet—might not have been here had it not been for the technological boom started in the era of space flight.
We improved socially, too. The protests and discord of the 1960s and early 1970s gave way to improved race relations, strides for women and a period of relative peace. Yet today, our country is once again at war among ourselves over some of these same issues that dogged us then. And in the same way other long-standing institutions such as schools are on the budget-chopping block these days, so is NASA.
Maybe that lack of support is because space never seemed quite as interesting for most baby boomers after witnessing Armstrong's walk on the moon. My daughter and I were watching "Sesame Street" when the Challenger exploded in 1986—I wouldn't have known for hours if my mom hadn't called to tell me. I had just figured I'd catch the takeoff later on the news that evening.
Armstrong was not one to talk much after his moon walk, but in recent years he joined with other former astronauts to publicly criticize President Barack Obama's drive to outsource part of NASA's responsibilities to privately owned-and-operated rockets and spacecraft. Congress eventually went along with many of the administration's requests.
And Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan says he supports the idea of a "robust space program." Yet, he voted against then-President George Bush's 2008 NASA Authorization Act and, again, against Obama's 2010 act.
So we may continue to explore space, but it might eventually be corporate ventures that take us beyond, not NASA. Somehow, watching a corporation land the first man on Mars wouldn't bring the same heart swell of national pride as did Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon.
Armstrong died Saturday a national hero. That's something corporate money can't buy.