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'The excitement of it was magical': How Ireland tuned in to watch Apollo 11 make history

It was in the early hours of 21 July 1969 that Irish audiences first heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he stepped onto the surface.
Jul 13th 2019, 10:30 AM 13,511 40

ON 20 JULY 1969, more than 53 million households across the world gathered around their television to wait for images of a man stepping onto the moon for the first time.

It was late at night Irish time when Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon and it was only in the early hours of 21 July that audiences here heard those famous words from astronaut Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Minister of State John Halligan, a teenager at the time, was at home with his parents in Waterford City that night watching RTÉ’s live broadcast with fascination. 

“I thought it was astonishing, everyone was astonished. It was in black and white we saw it, to us it was something magnificent at the time when we were kinds, I would have been about 15 or 16 at the time,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“We didn’t realise the innovation behind it all, the technology behind it and the far reaching consequences for here on Earth that we were able to land on, not a planet, a satellite but it’s a great achievement. The advancements we’ve made since are magnificent.”

Source: AP Archive/YouTube

Halligan,who  said he was “astounded” at the time by the idea that these astronauts were going to land on and step out onto the moon. 

“It was a mission fraught with danger, they were off course, they barely had enough fuel to land and they had a separate fuel tank they couldn’t go into because they needed that to lift off,” he said. 

While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin received the most attention after the mission, it is the third astronaut with them, Michael Collins, who Halligan most admires.

“Sometimes he’s forgotten about. When they landed he did all the technical work landing the craft, he stayed on board and made sure they were safe when they stepped out and he was the guy who had to keep everything going and connect up again. He was to me one of the most important, probably the most important.”

‘Tied into my memory’

Thelma Mansfield was working as an RTÉ continuity announcer at the time of the moon landing, but that night was a particularly special one for her for a different reason.

The man she was in a relationship at the time took her for a drive all the way up Bray Head.

“I don’t know how he managed to get it up there, but he got to a very good viewing point across the sea and he opened up the glove compartment and took out a wide rimmed champagne glass, a bottle of champagne arrived from somewhere and then he took out a ring I had admired and proposed to me.”

They went to her mother’s house to show her the ring and she got pulled into a game of Bridge with her mother’s friends.

“So the night I got engaged I had to sit in and play cards while he sat in front of the TV and watched the moon landing. You didn’t say no to my mum. I did manage to slip in every now and then and see what was happening on the TV.

“I know I was working in RTÉ the next day but I don’t remember whether there was buzz about the moon landing, the buzz in my own head was all I was concerned about. I was so excited going around to makeup and wardrobe and showing everyone my ring.

“We parted in the future so he didn’t become my husband but he was my first engagement and it was a very exciting evening, so that’s all tied into my memory now of the moon landing.”

‘Changed the face of mankind’

David Moore, Head of Astronomy Ireland, was just six-years-old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Thirty-four years later he got the opportunity to meet his hero Neil Armstrong in Dublin. 

He said the astronaut was reluctant to do an interview but eventually agreed. 

“I’m sitting in a chair next to this man who has flown combat missions in the Korean war and been to the moon and a few other things as well, and his hands are shaking from the fear of being interviewed.”

Moore also had a chance to interview Aldrin the following year.

Neil was demure and nervous and Buzz was aggressive. To be fair to him, I asked him a very long and meandering question that i probably should have rehearsed and at the end of it he asked ‘Can I speak now?’

“It is an absolute highlight of my career to have met the first two people face to face and have one on one conversations with them. I never thought that would happen, especially in Dublin.”

Moore started Astronomy Ireland’s celebrations of the anniversary last month, with an event to show members of the public the moon on powerful telescopes. On Tuesday, the anniversary of Apollo 11′s launch, they will be hosting a lunar eclipse watch.

“It changed the face of mankind enormously. I’ve been trying to think will there ever be anybody more famous than Neil Armstrong… On the good side, I can only think of Jesus Christ and Neil Armstrong.”

‘It was magical’

Dinah Molloy, a former technician with the Dublin Institute for Advance Studies (DIAS) was in Wexford on the night of the moon landing.

She did not have a television to watch it on, but she said the importance of this step for space exploration and for science in general motivated her.

“Of course the excitement of it was magical. I lived in a tiny flat in Dublin and all I had on my wall was this enormous picture of the Earth from the moon that they took. I think for most of us, for me certainly anyways, it drove me for the rest of my days,” she told TheJournal.ie

NO FEE DIAS APOLLO Former scanners Emer Kee, Dinah Molloy and Hilary O’Donnell as The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) held a celebratory event recently to mark the 50th anniversary.

Molloy worked on materials from the first moon landing in 1969 and examined mica from the Apollo 16 mission to the moon in 1972. 

“There were moon samples that were sent to Berkeley University in California. One of our physicists went over there and worked on them and I went over there for a while too,” she said.

A number of us technicians in DIAS were called scanners at that stage. We were particularly skilled at using microscopes at that point looking at occlusions or markings in things like plastics and photographic places and mica would have been the same thing.

“The findings we were looking for at the time – which seem now like old tat – were to see what the cosmic radiation was made up of.”

She said the speed of discovery since that time is “amazing”. 

“In 50 years it’s probably the fastest rate of discovery in mankind’s span. With spaceships now going to Saturn in that span of time, I don’t think we can really cope with it honestly.

“It’s almost too big a concept where we’re going to and the whole opening up of artificial intelligence. I’d love to come back once every 100 years just to see what is happening.”

- With reporting by Orla Dwyer and Christina Finn. 

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