It was a moment when eyes turned heavenward in an act of collective wonder. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong went for a walk that started with one small step.
Its impact was felt by millions back on Earth.
The Apollo 11 moonwalk by Mr. Armstrong, who died on Saturday, is being remembered as not just a feat of human achievement. It was an uplifting counterpoint to an American decade of assassinations, war, campus turmoil, inner-city riots and, only a few days earlier, the drowning of a woman in the car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy on Chappaquiddick Island.
But for those few hours in July, families gathered around radios and rabbit-eared televisions to behold the ghostly images of a man in a puffy spacesuit saunter gingerly in the dust of the moon.
“To me, [the moon landing] verged on the impossible,” said Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau, who was a 20-year-old on Navy training in the English Channel and listened to the event on shortwave radio. “It was proof that if we really, really set our minds to it, there’s nothing that we can’t do.”
Several Canadian astronauts said Mr. Armstrong inspired them. Robert Thirsk decided to become an astronaut at 15 on the night he followed Mr. Armstrong’s moonwalk while on a camping trip in B.C. Julie Payette had a poster of Mr. Armstrong up in her bedroom wall. Mr. Garneau, now a Liberal MP, said the moonwalk planted the seed for his interest in space exploration.
“This wasn’t just the U.S. doing this for itself,” Mr. Garneau said. “It was the first human being to set foot on another celestial body. It will be remembered 10,000 years from now.”
As if to underscore the turbulence and euphoria of the closing decade, the Apollo landing coincided with preparations for Woodstock, the rock fest in New York state that became another defining event of the 60s.
John Polanyi, the Canadian scientist and Nobel laureate, followed the moon landing from a farm outside Toronto. For him, it remains a seminal moment of human achievement. Mr. Armstrong was felt to have flubbed his line when he stepped off the ladder of lunar module, dropping the “a” from his statement: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But Mr. Polanyi said Mr. Armstrong in fact got it right. His walk on the moon represented humankind’s ability to burst beyond Earth’s barriers.
“It was a blow for freedom. Discovery is always a blow for freedom – because it removes some of the shackles. Now we could start walking on planets other than the one we had been walking on from the beginning of history,” he said. “It’s the classic exultation of discovery.
“It changed our view of ourselves ... I was full of admiration for these two lonely guys prancing about on the moon,” he said of Mr. Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Others note that that while the event marked its generation, it did not usher in a new age of space exploration. Three years after Mr. Armstrong’s feat, astronaut Eugene Cernan walked on the moon; no one has since.
“Such great anticipation came out of it,” Randy Attwood, managing editor of Space Quarterly, said of Mr. Armstrong’s moonwalk. “We thought it was the beginning. But it’s flopped.”
Still, for that one bright moment, people like Mr. Attwood – then 12, his imagination fuelled by Star Trek and Lost in Space – were held rapt as they watched Mr. Armstrong on TV.
“Everyone was looking at this as a great human enterprise to do as a species,” Mr. Attwood, a former president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, said from Mississauga. “We could prove we could go to another place, we weren’t just stuck on Earth. We were capable of these incredible achievements.”