I was sitting in a darkened room watching a small black-and-white TV set at the American Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela when American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon 50 years ago last weekend. As the Embassy’s young press officer, I was proud to be representing my country abroad as the Venezuelans celebrated the Moon Mission with us. As we know, however, U.S.-Venezuela relations have deteriorated badly since then.
Venezuelan media interest was so intense that we established a U.S. Embassy Space Center with a giant celestial diagram of the mission while one of our radio staffers re-broadcast Voice of America coverage of the mission in Venezuelan Spanish carried by almost all of the country’s radio stations. Meanwhile, our Apollo 11 coverage was on the front pages of all major dailies, which earned me the dubious title of “Mr. Placement.”
Guajira Indians in western Venezuela danced in honor of the American astronauts and some of our media friends, including a Communist science writer for the leading daily, established a Space Journalists Association. I was proud to be an honorary member of that group. We crossed ideological and political lines to celebrate a scientific achievement for all of mankind, as Armstrong declared when he first set foot on the Moon.
Because we were fighting the Cold War in those days, we had to counter a disinformation story from the Soviet Union that we had staged the moon landing in a TV studio in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, thanks to spectacular audio-visual material we received from NASA, we were able to present clear and convincing evidence that American astronauts had walked on the Moon. That evidence was reinforced in person when the Apollo 12 astronauts visited Caracas the following year.
I remember those days fondly 50 years later as a highlight of my 28-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service. I re-connected with the space program several years later when I served as a diplomatic courier to return a Moon rock from Bogota, Colombia to the NASA Space Center in Houston. A box containing the Moon rock was chained to my wrist, but I had to open the box and display the rock as I passed through U.S. Customs in Houston. That was an unforgettable experience.
In a comprehensive article on “how the Moon landing changed the world,” Christian Science Monitor reporter Eva Botkin-Kowacki wrote that “the Moon landing did more than advance science or boost U.S. prowess. It taught the world to dream.” I couldn’t agree more. Botkin-Kowacki, who interviewed Dr. Harrison Schmitt, one of 12 American astronauts who walked on the Moon, wrote that “what sticks in his mind still today is the stark contrast between the barren lunar landscape under a pitch-black sky and the colorful little capsule the astronauts had called home for three days.” “It’s more than anyone can describe,” Schmitt told her. “It’s a spectacular place to be.”
Only three other astronauts who walked on the Moon are still alive, including 89-year-old Buzz Aldrin, who was chipper and talkative when he visited the White House earlier this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. But here’s a little-known fact: Air Force Col. Edwin E. Aldrin was paid exactly $33.31 for his round-trip to the Moon, according to his official travel voucher. The voucher states that he flew from Cape Kennedy, Florida to the Moon and back, and that “government quarters were provided.” That’s the very definition of patriotism. God bless Buzz Aldrin and our space program, which makes all of us proud to be Americans.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat.