Sunday, December 11, 2016
Reporting The Moon Landing
Times Insider shares historical insights from The New York Times.
In the summer of 1969, John Noble Wilford finished a long working day in Texas and glanced up at the moon.
There was a lot going on that year.
Hundreds of miles away in New York City, just around the corner from his home in Greenwich Village, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn had just turned his neighborhood into a focal point for the burgeoning gay rights movement.
He missed all of that.
Meanwhile, a counterculture movement was gathering pace, culminating in the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York just a few weeks later.
He would miss that, too.
As a New York Times science reporter assigned to cover the Apollo program, Mr. Wilford was entirely consumed by the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In July 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration won that Cold War contest by landing the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins remained in orbit above. Marking that achievement, Mr. Wilford’s name was at the top of the front page of the Times edition of July 21, 1969 beneath the banner headline: “Men Walk on Moon.” You could buy a copy for 10 cents.
In a new Times video interactive series — “I Was There” — Mr. Wilford recalls that night outside NASA’s mission control center in Houston nearly 50 years ago, when, as a journalist in his mid-30s, he knew he would probably never again experience such a moment.
“I thought to myself, yes, this is the biggest story I will probably ever write in my career,” he said. “Unless of course, I am still around reporting when people discover other life in the universe.”
Mr. Wilford, now 83 and still writing for The Times, went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes. He also wrote the obituary for Mr. Armstrong, who died four years ago, and that of John Glenn, who died on Thursday.
The live version of this interview, published on The Times’s Facebook page, allowed viewers to submit their own questions in the comments, a selection of which Mr. Wilford answered in real time during the interview.
He discusses the mood of the Cold War era, the global reaction to the moon landing, how he wrote the story, and the years of planning that went into the newspaper’s coverage.
He is also dismissive of conspiracy theories that the moon landing was faked, but says that he dutifully questioned NASA officials at the time, and summarizes their rebuttal. He also gives his expert opinion on the accuracy of popular culture depictions of the space-race era, including the Hollywood movies “Apollo 13,” and “The Right Stuff.” He says that one of the NASA astronauts, John Glenn, complained that the latter movie depicted him as “too much of a square, goody-goody guy.”
In the coming months we’ll speak to Times reporters, photographers and editors who have witnessed other moments that shaped our era, such as the Tiananmen Square violence and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
We’ll also cover significant sporting and cultural moments, including the very Woodstock festival that Mr. Wilford missed — because, as he puts it in the interview, “I was off, mooning.”