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Mankind landing on another heavenly body for the first time sounds like the story of the 20th Century. Viewed from a later, space-faring century, it might yet be.

It doesn't seem so today. Oddly, given the event, it didn't seem so when it happened. In July 1969, the event of Apollo 11 was such an emotional overload that I made sense only out of disconnected images, not the least of them mortality and why some people watch car races.

Three hours before the Saturn V rocket lighted up and roared toward the moon, reporters stood outside crew quarters at 6:25 a.m. as Neil A. Armstrong, then Michael Collins, then Edwin Aldrin strode past us 15 feet away.

The cheering was a kind of subdued prayer.

They had been up since 4:15 a.m., eating their steak and eggs breakfast and suiting up for the adventure awaited for eight years. Now they waved at us, smiled from their air-conditioned bubble helmets and climbed into their van for the first stage of their intended ride to the moon's Sea of Tranquility, near the Sea of Serenity but not far from the Sea of Crises.

The astronauts wore silver-white suits and sterling silver confidence. They looked so brave. They were so brave.

We had been writing self-consciously about history, about mankind reaching for the stars, but I wondered privately, "Will they die up there?" "Are we ever going to see these guys again?" "Armstrong came so close to dying before."

That last thought stemmed from an earlier flight when, on Gemini a short circuit caused Mr. Armstrong and David Scott to spin out of control momentarily. Mr. Armstrong saved the day by firing a re-entry rocket and avoiding the possibility of burning up in re-entry or being stranded in space.

Despite the space agency's string of successes, nothing was certain.

One of the three moon men had said that week, "Fear is not an unknown emotion to us." Well before the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger space shuttle disaster, tragedy had accompanied the spacemen.

On Jan. 27, 1967, astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Roger B. Chaffee and Edward H. White II died in a Florida launch pad fire, a calamity captured by Chaffee's last words, "We're burning up." The resulting probe revealed many space agency faults, just as the deaths of the seven Challenger astronauts would 19 years later.

Many other thoughts came as we gathered for the Apollo 11 launch before thousands at Cape Kennedy.

"No delays, please," a reporter facing an immediate deadline kept saying to himself. "No damn delays."

I had seen about half a dozen rocket launches in the 1960s strike awe into the nation, but there was nothing like this one, my last and best shot. It was the first time humans would leave the Earth and try to walk elsewhere.

Elsewhere. It was amazing.

The public had been surprised when Mr. Armstrong was chosen to lead the mission. He wasn't well known and wasn't one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. At least we knew about the Wapakoneta, Ohio, man and his fellow fliers. It was different from today, when few can name shuttle astronauts.

July 16, 1969, was a perfect day to go to the beach or go to the moon -- blue skies, hot sun, wisps of clouds far off. The tall Apollo rocket on Launch Pad 39A was 3 1/2 miles from the press site. The rocket looked imposing across an inlet of the Banana River. Birds circled.

When I had seen it close-up, the Apollo machine seemed to be a monster: 36 stories high with a little rocket on top to pull the astronauts to safety if the launch failed.

The rocket's big engines ignited on schedule, crackled to full thrust and lifted off on a tower of fire at 9:32 a.m. before thousands up and down the Florida beaches. It was a 2,900-ton boat going straight up.

Some reporters and politicians applauded or cheered.

In seconds, the rocket disappeared, part of it to emerge three days later on the moon as a spidery spaceship called Eagle.

We filed our stories. My emotional wiring included various loose connections that day and for days after.

First, there was the unbelievability of it. For me, it was something apart, like seeing the Northern Lights for the first time or watching a world of mountains from the top of Longs Peak in Colorado after an eight-hour climb or seeing the North Atlantic crash over the bow of a small ship years ago.

We had immediate questions for Apollo 11. Are they going to find something we didn't know? (Yes, but no major surprises). Will they say something poetic? (No. Too self-conscious was Armstrong's line, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.") How will they move on the surface? (running more than walking). Will Armstrong and Aldrin lift off safely to get back to the circling command module? (Yes).

Then the bigger question, often asked in the 1960s: Will we go to Mars by 2000, a nine-month voyage rather than a long weekend trip? (No, that's for later generations, if ever). Though born in national politics, was Apollo 11 mankind's first step to save itself and find another home?

I recalled President John F. Kennedy's pledge in 1961 to beat the Russians to the moon and to do it by the end of the 1960s. One after another, rockets arched eastward from Florida after that. Project Mercury carried one man; Gemini, two men in a Martin Marietta Corp. Baltimore-assembled rocket; and the moon-bound Apollo, three.

The decade was finally coming to an end. By July 1969, the space race had become no race. The thrills of space were wearing thin. Americans were still dying in Vietnam and protesting at home. They mourned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. They agonized over the future of the cities after rioting and the nations after protests. The civil rights and women's revolutions were charging into the 1970s.

People didn't know about some field near Woodstock, N.Y. --they would a month later, Aug. 24, 1969 -- but Woodstock people had already begun saying, "We can send men to the moon but can't shorten the unemployment line." It's a nice thought but, in some ways, a nonsequitur.

The lunar landing was left to my older colleague, William J. Perkinson, the Evening Sun science editor. He was a small, chain-smoking former airman who twice tried to escape from a German prisoner of war camp (the one in the movie "The Great Escape") after being shot down in World War II.

Perkinson had covered the Berlin airlift, Bikini nuclear bomb tests, space shots, the polluted Chesapeake Bay, Antarctica and early jet tests. Perky was his usual intense self covering the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was the story of his life, and when he got home in late July, he was as excited as a kid. Less than a week later, he died of a heart attack at 48.

Apollo 11 was an inspiration for millions. People were uplifted when the Eagle landed and humans jogged in the moon dust. Even before the landings, it was only by going to the moon that we could see how beautiful the Earth looked in space. The astronauts came home safely. Yet, by the end of the 1960s, however celestial the event, the moon landing was a short, welcome diversion from the country's social troubles.

Twelve men walked on the moon in six flights, the last in December 1972. Then the glory was over, suddenly, as though bottled and put on a shelf for anniversaries like this one. The shuttle did little to fire our imaginations. Dreams for a Mars follow-up died. The Hubble Space Telescope brings some hope as it works beyond the cataract-like atmosphere that clouds astronomers' vision.

For many of us, Apollo 11 was the adventure story of our lives. Yet, it's still too soon to say exactly what it meant. Apollo 11 was separate from other stories, too isolated to be called a steppingstone, circling our consciousness, apart, like the moon.

Ernest F. Imhoff, reporting for The Evening Sun, covered the Gemini missions, other space stories and the Apollo 11 flight. He is acting director of photo and graphics of The Sun.

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