The Apollo mission that took off 45 years ago Wednesday was more than just the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century.
The successful moon landing was the greatest public relations event since the Boston Tea party.
Latin America figured heavy in the public relations plans. Until just before the Apollo flight, Latin America was not connected electronically to U.S. television feeds.
The Military Air Transport Command took care of that. Two C-130 transport planes brought satellite receiving equipment to the still barren air strip that would become the new international airport at Maracaibo, Venezuela. The airport was so new that all that was there was the concrete airstrip and an eight-foot wooden shack.
The U.S. Embassy staff in the capital of Caracas arranged a flight to Maracaibo that morning for selected newspeople. They huddled out of the tropical sun inside the tiny shack until the first transport arrived.
The airport was so new there was no control tower, so the first plane to arrive provided weather and wind direction to the second, which came in about a half hour later.
From that point in northern South America, satellite feeds soon were arriving at every local television station in the continent. That was in April 1969. Less than two months later, July 16, The Apollo 11 spacecraft containing Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins was perched above Saturn rockets in Florida.
I remember standing with my wife, Sharon, on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. cultural center in Caracas awaiting the morning launch. Venezuelans crowded around because the center staff had placed a television on a rolling stand at the front door.
Venezuelans, who have their own version of Tico time, were most impressed that the giant spacecraft blasted off when NASA officials said it would.
At that time I was a copy editor at the venerable Daily Journal, the Venezuelan English-language daily. These were the days before computers, and the back shop contained journeymen printers who composed the newspaper with hot lead and produced it on an ancient flatbed press. Most of the printers had worked together in Spain before they became a military unit fighting Francisco Franco’s facists forces.
The soldiers and their families were allowed to leave Spain after Franco won, and they chose Venezuela and the trade they knew.
The lead typesetter was known to us as Don Victor. He had been the sergeant and he still ran the print facility with precision. Those who were not communists certainly had leftist and anti-American leanings. They were skilled printers.
On the evening of July 20 as Armstrong and Aldrin jockeyed the lunar lander to a spot on the moon, the bulk of the newspaper employees, including the printers, crowded into the newsroom, and the satellite feed from Maracaibo was working perfectly.
The nail biting ended with Armstrong’s radio message the Eagle lander was now Tranquility Base. We all cheered.
I broke out a bottle of scotch I had saved for a safe landing and began doling out small portions in those little conical paper cups. Soon the bottle was empty.
That’s when the sergeant, Don Victor, stood up, motioned to the copy boy, pressed bills into the lad’s hand and ordered up a second bottle from the nearby liquor store.
As Armstrong said just a few minutes later, it was a giant leap for mankind, political persuasions notwithstanding.