For nearly all Americans old enough to remember it, July 20, 1969, is a day etched in their minds, and one that Kernersville resident Mike Lucas remembers vividly.
His friend’s parents plopped them down on the couch in front of the black-and-white TV and said: “Don’t move. You’re about to see history.”
What happened next sent shockwaves through the world as Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, uttering his famous line: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“The unique thing was, for one brief moment in time, all races, all religions — any division you can put human beings into — everybody on the planet stood together as one,” said Lucas, who was 18 at the time. “We, as humans, visited another world. We did the impossible.”
Lucas was among the more than 600 million worldwide that watched the much-anticipated and historic moment unfold on television 50 years ago.
The successful Apollo 11 mission came just years after President John F. Kennedy announced a national goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the 1960s.
At the time of Kennedy’s 1961 speech, astronaut Alan Shepard had just become the first American in space with his 15-minute suborbital flight on the Freedom 7 — also known as Mercury-Redstone 3 — mission.
“We couldn’t even put a person in orbit yet, so talking about putting a person on the moon, are you kidding?” Lucas said, emphasizing the significance of the accomplishment. “I think humans wanting to go to the moon far predates space flight, but we just never had the means to do so.”
Lucas, 68, had dreams of becoming an astronaut, especially in an age where astronauts were lauded as heroes and the race to conquer space was intensifying.
In the summer of 1970, Lucas had his first brush with astronauts when he was working at a Texas airport and answered a phone call from a man, who identified himself as Alan Shepard.
“I thought ‘Huh, he has the same name as this famous astronaut. I wonder if it’s him,’ ” said Lucas, then a student at University of Houston. “When I was 10, I had watched Alan Shepard on the school TV make history, but I never dreamed I’d meet the man.”
Sure enough, Shepard — who became the fifth man to walk on the moon — and fellow astronaut Deke Slayton drove up and talked to an awed teenage Lucas for a while before heading to their plane.
Over the years, their interaction evolved into a friendship, and Lucas, who became an airline pilot, ended up doing some part-time flying for Shepard, he said.
After the subsequent five crewed moon landings between 1969 and 1972, Lucas attempted to pursue a career as an astronaut but was told by the military that, at age 25, he was too old.
But he maintained his passion for space, and in the years since has met or befriended 10 of the 12 men who walked on the moon, including Armstrong, and 20 of the 24 astronauts who went on missions to the moon.
Charles Duke, who became the youngest person at age 36 to walk on the moon, remains a close friend of his, he said, and likes to tell the story about how he nearly died on the moon trying to jump as high as he could.
“They were all my idols and my heroes growing up, so getting to meet and know some of these guys was incredible,” said Lucas, who started with Piedmont Airlines in 1984 and retired from American Airlines in 2013. “They’re human just like the rest of us but were uniquely qualified at a pivotal point in history to do something that had never been done before.”