MAN, ON THE MOON: Former broadcaster reflects on Apollo 11 mission 50 years later

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For David Denault, today’s 50th anniversary of man walking on the moon is a trip down memory lane. 

As the world celebrates the half-century mark of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, the Cartersville resident is recalling his memories of covering the eight-day mission on the radio for Florida Network News.

“The Apollo 11 mission, to be able to be there and report on it at a young age and now go back 50 years, I can still visualize a lot of things like it was almost yesterday,” he said. “You live that whole mission. You’re living it, just like the astronauts were.”

Denault, who moved to Bartow County two years ago, said covering the mission as a 23-year-old journalist ranks “up at the top, right up at the top” of all the events he covered in his career.

“To be a small part of history, to be able to tell people what was happening, to be able to describe to people what’s happening … You have to tell them what you’re seeing in this black-and-white, grainy image that we can see is an astronaut coming down that ladder, Neil Armstrong,” he said. “So you have to tell that story, and you become a storyteller.”

After weeks of preparation, the south Florida native watched with the rest of the world as commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins blasted off in a Saturn V rocket for an unknown world that was 240,000 miles from Earth.   

“During liftoff, you know, you’re talking during liftoff,” he said. “It doesn’t dawn on you right away that you’re telling the story that these men actually lift off and [are] going to the moon, and you don’t think about that until later. We knew this would be part of history, there’s no doubt. Of all of the things that have happened besides Columbus, now you have men going to the moon.”

The most dramatic part of the mission was the actual moonwalk, which happened later than scheduled, Denault said.

“Here’s this little black-and-white picture that I’m watching, just like everybody else except for the guy in the space capsule, and you’re watching this and going, ‘Wow, this is really going to happen,’” he said. 

Then the 38-year-old Armstrong stepped off the lunar module “and then he says his famous speech, ‘One small step for man …,’” Denault said. 

“I think the only thing I said was, ‘Wow, that’s it. Man has stepped on the moon,’” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything you could say except ‘wow.’”

During the mission, which covered 195 hours between July 16 and July 24, the media could hear conversations between the astronauts and Mission Control and also received updates every eight hours.

Denault said there was a problem with the landing site, but Armstrong “just grabbed the stick – ‘We’ll fly it manually.’” 

“He literally moved that little stick around and found a spot [to land],” he said. “There was a long discussion about how much fuel was left. Was it 18 seconds or was it 25 seconds of fuel left? That’s all they had, and then they would’ve had to hit the button and go back up to orbit. But he put it on the ground.”

Denault also said the world knew about Armstrong’s historic comment, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” but may not have heard what Aldrin said when he became the second person to ever step on the moon.

“As Buzz Aldrin steps on the moon and looks, he goes, ‘magnificent desolation,’” he said. “When you look out there on the surface, it’s like, wow.”

Aldrin also reported a problem to Houston — the button for the circuit breaker that was the only way to fire the engine was broken, and the astronauts had to use a ball-point pen to hit the button and get off the moon, Denault said.

“People don’t know that either,” he said. “The circuit breaker switch somehow got broken so there was no way to throw it, and you can’t get off the moon. So you had to put a little ink pen in there and flip it. That’s how close we were to having two astronauts stranded on the moon. That was the scary part for them.”

Denault also said Aldrin was working on an experiment when he looked around to find Armstrong was gone. 

“This guy had walked way, way out, far away from the vehicle, and he wanted to get a picture of the vehicle and all the surrounding area,” he said. “Just walked off and got this magnificent picture of the whole area.”

Besides being late for their historic walk, the astronauts also didn’t make it home on schedule, Denault said. 

“Here’s the first crew we send to the moon, and they didn’t come in on time,” he said. “They wanted to play on the moon. The wanted to play some more. They had things to do. They spent almost a complete day, almost 22 hours, on the surface of the moon, and they just wanted to do more stuff out there. They were having a good time.”

Denault said there was a “big discussion” at NASA about who was going to be the first man to walk on the moon, and the decision was made based on how the hatch on the lunar module opened. Armstrong was the one who could get through it first because of where he was sitting so he received the honor of making history. 

While Armstrong and Aldrin were cavorting around the craters, Collins was orbiting in the command module and taking pictures of the dark side of the moon, where he had “no communications with anyone, all dark, until he comes back around,” Denault said.

“Poor Mike,” he said. “He flew around the moon like every 47 minutes. He didn’t talk to anybody. He was on the back side of the moon.”

During the mission, the astronauts received the ultimate long-distance call when President Richard Nixon phoned them from the Oval Office, making it the “longest telephone call made in history,” Denault said.

“People don’t think about we made a telephone call in 1969 to the surface of the moon,” he said. “We don’t think about what did it take to do that and how do we process that? There’s so much to be in awe of today that we did in 1969 with no technology.” 

The Apollo 11 crew was given “about a 50-50 chance of landing on the moon,” Denault said, and anchorman  Walter Cronkite had ordered CBS News to have “three different eulogies ready to go” while the White House had a prepared statement for Nixon to make “if they died.”

Denault’s wife, Judy, said she was “really uptight and relieved” when the lunar module lifted up from the moon’s surface on its way home.

“I was scared to death they were going to be down there on the moon, and they wouldn’t be able to get back,” she said. “I remember just holding my breath, and everybody just anticipating, are they going to be able to get off?”

After the mission, the astronauts, who never flew again, returned to Kennedy Space Center to thank everyone and “have a little news thing,” Denault said.

Among the questions asked was what Armstrong and Aldrin, who had flown together in the Gemini program, were thinking about when the hatch was opened. 

“Armstrong looked down, ‘just get down the ladder, one step at a time,’” Denault said. “Very methodical. Buzz Aldrin, he was about 20 minutes after Armstrong was on the moon. He came down and said, ‘I’m going to close the hatch now, but I’m not going to lock it, OK?’ And Armstrong goes, ‘Yeah, that’d be a good idea. We’ve got to live here for the next few days.’ Always had a good sense of humor.”

Another question astronauts get asked a lot is about fear, but for them, “fear was not an issue,” Denault said.

“Armstrong was fearless, seriously,” he said, noting the commander had flown combat missions over Korea when he was in the U.S. Air Force. 

On Armstrong’s Gemini VIII mission, where two spacecraft were going to be linked together in the Earth’s orbit for the first time, the spacecraft began tumbling out of control, and he ignored what he’d been told to do and fired the main engine, Denault said.

“If they couldn’t stop it, they would tumble back into Earth and die,” he said. “Armstrong was there, and he just kind of fired the main engine, put this thing right, pulled it out and saved their lives and brought the spacecraft [home]. They ended the mission early, but he saved their lives and brought them back.”    

But Armstrong was “not personable,” shied away from the media and didn’t consider himself an American hero, Denault said. 

“He’s like, ‘I did what I was supposed to do — I flew the dang thing; I landed it on the moon, got some rocks, brought them back,’” he said.

However, being a civilian who doesn’t like publicity, has a computer for a mind and is analytical all the time were some of the reasons he was chosen as commander of Apollo 11, he added.

Denault said Armstrong’s matter-of-fact attitude and inability to show emotions could be attributed to his 2-year-old daughter, Karen, dying from pneumonia while battling a malignant brain tumor.

“Armstrong’s wife will tell the story, as well, that he was never the same,” he said. “He never got to that point to break down. It was like, ‘OK, I’m going to put myself into my work.’ That was it for him. It was a terrible, terrible loss for him, and he never, ever lived it down.”

Aldrin, on the other hand, likes the spotlight, was the public relations man for the mission and is still doing commercials, said Denault, who once did a half-hour show with him.  

“I asked if I could meet with him, and he said, ‘Sure,’” he said. “Nice guy. He likes the publicity. So we did a whole half-hour program for the Florida [radio] network.”

Denault said the mood of the country about space exploration during the Apollo 11 mission was a combination of excitement, pride and patriotism. 

“People were so excited,” he said. “This was it. I talked to a lot of these correspondents, and all of these countries that they came from were so excited that they were hearing that we’re going to go to the moon. It was a great time, not just for America, but I think for the entire world to see, and to be part of that was like wow. The feeling of patriotism that you felt – American astronauts were going to go the moon.”

The “anticipation leading up to” the launch drew crowds of unprecedented size to the Kennedy Space Center, Denault said.

“We’d never had a crowd at the space center like that before,” he said. “Over a million people, maybe a million and a half people, lined the causeways from Titusville to the beaches to watch.” 

Denault said he got to meet a lot of astronauts through his coverage of Apollo missions 7-12 for the radio network and Apollo 16-17, as well as other space missions, for National Public Radio, and looking at the moon is a different experience for him because of that.

“When I look up there, I just think, wow, I have met the men that have walked on the moon, and there are 12 of them,” he said. “I get chills now just thinking I’ve met the 12 men who’ve walked on the moon. I’ve been with them; I’ve talked to them, shared a drink or so, and it’s amazing. What do say to the guy [Alan Shepard] who hits a golf ball on the surface of the moon? They were able to bring some human things to the story of the moon.”

As for his plans for the 50th anniversary, Denault said he and his wife will probably have friends over to see a slide show of photos from the moon, if he can find slide projector, and talk about the Apollo 11 mission.

After covering the space program for so many years, Denault has a huge collection of memorabilia, including a copy of the plaque left on the moon by the Apollo 11 crew and an autographed photo of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. 

Signing an autograph was “probably very unusual for [Armstrong] to do,” considering someone offered to pay him $1 million if he would sign 100 pictures, and he refused, Denault said. 

“He was with a small group of friends that were at the space center, and he just signed that, and then you find out he wouldn’t do anything at all [after that],” he said.

His collection was so large that he donated part of it to the University of Idaho in 1982, when he was working in Idaho as a TV news director.