Story by Ron jackson

Five-year-old Jerry Elliott walked onto the back porch of his family’s two-bedroom Oklahoma City home on a hot summer morning in 1948. He bent his squatty legs and plopped his bottom on the concrete stairway that led to a narrow driveway. The sun already blazed from the eastern sky as he stared momentarily into the plowed field across the road.

subhead one: suddenly he heard a noise

“The voice was very clear, and sounded like a man’s voice,” recalled Elliott, now 66 and firmly rooted in his Cherokee/Osage heritage. “The voice came from the direction of the sun.”

Elliott looked up, but the sun’s brightness caused him to squint and turn away.

“The voice told me, ‘I have a plan for you,’ ” Elliott said.

“It said, ‘Some day you will lift men onto the moon.’ I ran inside and told my mother this man wanted to talk to me. She said, ‘What man? Show me.’ I went outside and pointed to the sun.

“Of course, my mother understood the Indian way of the spiritual world.”

Frances Elliott looked down at her son and quietly replied, “Some day you will do great things.”

subhead: July 20th, 1969

Jerry Elliott tossed throughout the night at his apartment on the banks of Clear Lake, Texas, awaking early Sunday as perhaps most of the world did. Sunday marked the scheduled moon landing by the Apollo XI crew — Neil A. Armstrong, a civilian aeronautical engineer from Ohio; Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., a highly disciplined Air Force test pilot from New Jersey; and Michael Collins, another respected Air Force test pilot who was reared in a military household and spent time living in Oklahoma.

Saturn V rocket and Jerry Elliot, retrofire trajectory officer at Mission Control
(top)Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle, lifts off at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on July 16, 1969. - NASA Photo (bottom) Oklahoma City's Jerry Elliott served as a retrofire trajectory officer at NASA's Mission Control Center for Apollo XI. - Photo Provided

Elliott, 26, knew he would likely watch man’s historic first steps on the moon in a worldwide broadcast. But he would do so three miles away from his perch at NASA’s Mission Control Center, where he worked as a retrofire trajectory officer. As a physicist — hired without a resume three years earlier out of the University of Oklahoma — Elliott’s job required him to help design a flight path that would bring the astronauts home.

The landing would be the fulfillment of the spiritual vision he had experienced 21 years earlier.

The excitement ... the adrenaline ... the pride ... the anxiety of an aborted mission ... all toyed with his emotions on this momentous day.

Back home in Oklahoma, folks were picking up their thickly rolled Sunday Oklahoman and staring at the bold headline in euphoric disbelief: “APOLLO CIRCLING MOON.” A front page box outlined the Apollo XI schedule, right down to the expected moon touchdown of the lunar module at 3:19 p.m. The graphic also noted the continuous live coverage of CBS, NBC, and ABC, although no one in the civilized world really needed to be reminded.

Buzz Aldrin descend steps of the Lunar Module ladder as he prepares to walk on the surface of the moon
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. lunar module pilot, descends steps of Lunar Module ladder as he prepares to walk on the moon, July 20, 1969. This picture was taken by Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Commander, with a 70mm surface camera during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. - AP Photo/NASA
subhead: everyone knew

Walt Disney, the Super Bowl and The Ed Sullivan Show would have nothing on the televised audience expected for the moon landing later in the day. An estimated 500 million souls worldwide would watch the event on mostly grainy, black-and-white television sets. Others would huddle around radios, hanging on words that would forever change the imprint of mankind.

In Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation opened its doors at 1 p.m. on the state fairgrounds for anyone who wanted to watch the moon landing on color television. Planetarium staff members Dale Johnson and Michael McEwen greeted visitors, reminding them they were on hand to answer any technical questions.

Nearby, a model of the moon marked the projected landing site of the astronauts on the Sea of Tranquility.

Members of the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club planned to peer through their telescopes while Armstrong and Aldrin disembarked the lunar module.

Every member realized it would be impossible to actually see the lunar module, but the idea sounded adventurous nonetheless.

America’s race into space with the Soviet Union had reached a fever pitch.

“It makes me feel more American,” Midwest City’s Pat McGuire told a reporter on the eve of the landing. “If there is such a thing as blood running red, white and blue, that’s what it makes me feel like.”

Episcopal Church Bishop Chilton Powell of Oklahoma City viewed the upcoming landing more profoundly, describing it as a “great human achievement.”

The Apollo 11 flight insignia and commemorative stamps.
The Apollo 11 flight insignia and commemorative stamps.

“It can be a contribution to world peace,” Powell predicted. “Looking at the earth from the moon makes us aware that we all live together.”

Richard Collins of Oklahoma City summed up his excitement in simpler terms. From the generation that also delivered the jaw-dropping guitar riffs of Jimi Hendrix, Hippies, and free love, Collins replied coolly, “I really dig it.”

Some 265 miles away, deep in the woods of McCurtain County, residents of Moon huddled around the town’s only television set at Bates Tavern. Several years earlier, the Stauter Lumber Mill had closed, reducing Moon to a grocery store, gas pump, tavern, and 27 townspeople. All 27 residents were now crammed inside the tavern along with a handful of out-of-towners.

John H. Green, Moon’s oldest inhabitant at 93, was named honorary mayor for the day. Although nearly blind and hard of hearing, Green described the anticipated landing as “a wonderful something to do.”

Residents expressed as much excitement about the arrival of honored guest, George Ann Kerley of Bakersfield, Ca. Kerley won a promotional contest in Bakersfield to become America’s “first lady astronaut,” thus winning a trip to the moon — Moon, Okla., that is.

Kerley’s journey carried her aboard a jet from California to Durant, where she boarded a smaller plane for a 93-mile trip to Idabel. The mother of three then climbed into a helicopter for the final 13 miles to Moon and into the welcoming arms of its hospitable residents. A huge potluck dinner awaited her at the mountain tavern.

Overwhelmed by the celebration, local resident Martha Posey gushed, “It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened around here.”

President Johnson on July 20th, 1969
Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and then-current Vice President Spiro Agnew are among the spectators at the launch of Apollo 11, which lifted off on July 16, 1969. - NASA photo
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Oklahoma City Mayor James H. Norick in 1969
Oklahoma City Mayor James H. Norick in 1969

Oklahoma City Mayor James Norick sat in his living room by late afternoon, mesmerized by the continuous television coverage of the lunar module’s descent toward the moon’s cratered surface. Four days earlier he had witnessed Apollo XI’s historic liftoff at Cape Kennedy in an open-air grandstand with a handful of other Oklahoma dignitaries.

Tens of thousands watched outside the restricted area.

“The idea of landing on the moon was almost unimaginable,” said Norick, who now at age 89 remembers growing up in Oklahoma City when it was “a small place.”

Even as Norick watched history on his television 40 years ago, he couldn’t help but replay the unforgettable images of Apollo XI on the launch pad. Piped through loudspeakers, spectators heard a monotone voice from the Launch Control Center announce, “We are now approaching the 60-second mark ... T-minus 60 and counting.”

Frank Boggs, an Oklahoman columnist with a gift for humor, sat nearby among 4,000 international pressmen covering “the story of the century.” Tension filled the air as he tried to scribble every detail on his notepad.

The Saturn V rocket ignited, causing an inferno. Hearts raced. Seconds ticked away with no movement. Time seemed suspended.

Nervous reporters began to shout words of encouragement in various languages. Some yelled, “Go! Go!”

The grandstands shook. Typewriters jiggled. Slowly, amid the thunderous din, the rocket began to clear the launch pad in chorus with the rising cheers.

“We watched it go up and up and up,” Norick recalled. “And then, suddenly, it was gone – out of sight.”

Boggs wrote a column that day that matched the magnitude of the event, poetically concluding, “It was gone from our sight, never to be forgotten.”

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A deep sorrow hung in the living room of James and Rose Dobbs of Cordell as they watched the lunar module Eagle descend toward the moon in silence. No one dared to speak.

Seven days earlier, the couple had buried their 9-year-old daughter, Mary. The child died July 10 after a three-month battle with stomach cancer. James Dobbs had cradled Mary’s head against his chest until she drew her last breath, echoing, “I love you, baby. I love you, baby. I love you, baby.”

(above) Larry Dobbs of Cordell watched the moon landing through a fog of grief July 20, 1969. Seven days earlier, Dobbs helped bury his 9-year-old sister, Mary . - Photo Provided
(right) Nine-year-old Mary Dobbs of Cordell died of stomach cancer, and was buried seven days before the moon landing

Dobbs then called his remaining three children – Paula Giblet, Rita Giblet, and Larry Dobbs – to Mary’s bedside. “I want you to look at her,” he instructed. Mary lay motionless before them in a red silk nightgown. They noticed her brilliant blue eyes, black hair and the smoothness of her snow-white skin.

“Imprint her on your mind,” James Dobbs said as he gently brushed his hand against Mary’s face. “For she will forever be 9 years old.”

Now the family huddled together to watch history unfold through the numbness of grief.

Inside, Larry Dobbs felt more than a tinge of guilt. The 22-year-old struggled to balance the patriotic euphoria of the moment with the sorrow over his baby sister’s death. Only 10 months removed from the jungles of Vietnam, he served in the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division as a medic and was still struggling with the transition back to civilian life.

Larry entered the war as a conscientious objector and left a hardened killer. His first lesson in Vietnam came from an officer who handed him a weapon, saying, “Son, I’m gonna tell you something they didn’t tell you back home. The only way you’re gonna get out of this jungle alive is if you fight your way out.”

So he fought.

Then he returned home to again face death.

Yet Larry found momentary refuge in the progress of the American space program. He marveled at the technology and adventure of the missions. In Vietnam, he soaked up every tidbit of information sent by his father from magazine or newspaper clippings and discussed the Apollo program with a handful of soldiers who shared his intense interest.

Mary shared that interest in her own way, sometimes drawing a rocket ship on her letters to her brother in Vietnam. Undoubtedly, she would have been glued to the television set with the rest of her family in that historic hour.

“We watched quietly,” Larry recalled. “None of us dared to laugh or shout out of respect for Daddy and Mom. There was just such a deep grief in the house. No one really said a word. But I think Mary would have wanted us to scream and jump up and down.

Larry laughed at the thought, adding, “I really do.”

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Astronaut Thomas Stafford from Apollo X
(top)Astronaut Thomas Stafford of Weatherford watched the moon landing from NASA's Mission Control. He commanded Apollo X two months earlier, skimming to within 50,000 feet of the moon's surface. (bottom) Apollo X Command Module. - NASA photo

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford stood in Mission Control between NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine and Werner von Braun, creator of the Saturn V. As events unfolded in space, Stafford explained each move to them by the astronauts in meticulous detail.

Frankly, no one was more qualified.

Two months earlier, Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan conducted a reconnaissance of the moon’s cratered and rocky surface aboard Apollo X’s lunar module Snoopy, skimming to within 50,000 feet of Armstrong’s projected landing site. No humans had ever been so close to another celestial body.

Stafford later briefed Armstrong and his crew on every phase of the Apollo X mission.

“We took them through every step, right on up to the last 50,000 feet,” recalled Stafford, a Weatherford native. “That last part was their job.”

Stafford now listened intensely at the astronauts’ transmissions to Mission Control.

Dignitaries packed the room, so much so that the aisles between consoles were impossible to maneuver through. Relatives and other special guests peered through large windows that loomed from above. Jerry Elliott recalled seeing extra security guards posted at each entrance to ensure the mission would not be jeopardized “by some kook.”

Paranoia filled the air as much as anticipation.

Elliott sat anxiously at his console, jotting down notes in his mission log: “Go for powered descent ... 3,000 feet ... 2,000 feet ... 60 seconds to go ... 30 seconds to go!”

Suddenly, there was no touchdown, only agonizing silence. Tension filled the air. Nerves strained. Throats dried. Armstrong maneuvered around a debris field of rocks, burning fuel to a dangerously low level.

“Contact light,” Elliott wrote. “Engine stop ... They’re on the Moon!”

“Houston,” Armstrong announced at 3:10 p.m. “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Cheers erupted in Mission Control. Fists thrust into the air. Handshakes were served all around. Backs were slapped. Cigars were lit.

Elliott thought briefly about the vision from his childhood – a moment he would reflect on later in life. But there was no time for reflection now. For as suddenly as the cheering began, it stopped. NASA employees returned to work, monitoring their stations.

The mission was far from complete.

“Those were tense moments,” Stafford said. “When Neil landed, he only had 17 seconds of fuel left. We were that close from aborting the mission.”

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Some six hours and 40 minutes elapsed between the lunar module landing and Neil Armstrong’s appearance on the craft’s ladder. The fuzzy images were telecast worldwide via a camera mounted on the spacecraft. They were images a 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Michael Dean of Broken Bow would not see until years later.

radio broadcast from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba
Broken Bow's Michael Dean listened to the Moon walk as a young Marine via a radio broadcast piped into an outdoor theatre at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. - Photo Provided

Dean spent the days leading to that monumental moment brooding over the fact he would not watch the landing on television. Much to his dismay, he had been transferred from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

Guantanamo had no televisions; only the Voice of America radio. In the hours leading to Armstrong’s epic moment, Dean and his comrades were kept abreast of Apollo XI’s progress through radio reports over a PA system at an outdoor movie theater. Between broadcast updates they watched “The Sound of Music” and “Doctor Zhivago” on 16 mm reels.

Marine guards patrolled the naval base walls a short distance away.

Ironically, back in Dean’s home state of Oklahoma, prisoners at the State Penitentiary in McAlester were given unprecedented access to television to watch America’s rendezvous with destiny.

“You simply can’t deny these people the opportunity to witness this new chapter in the age of mankind,” warden Ray H. Page said. “I don’t think we have ever granted such a privilege before, but then nothing like this in our time has ever happened before.”

Streets were virtually empty in cities like Enid, Oklahoma City, Lawton and Tulsa. Theaters entertained a few stragglers. Gas station attendants sat around transistor radios.

Telephone lines were silent.

In Weatherford, newlyweds Max and Janna Montgomery watched Apollo XI’s activities from their apartment, not far from where they attended Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Janna, 21, was a town girl from Guymon.

“I was a carefree ‘60s girl,” Janna said. “I was excited by everything that was new and different.”

Max, an easy-going, 21-year-old rancher from Durham, wasn’t quite as enthused by the moon walk. He grew weary of the wait and went to bed.

Bill Moore of OKC now and at age 12
Bill Moore of Oklahoma City recalls the Moon walk 40 years ago. Moore is presently working on a documentary about Oklahomans in the space program. - Photo by Ron Jackson
(inset) a 12-year-old Bill Moore watched the Moon walk from the living room of his Oklahoma City house, mesmerized and inspired.

Twelve-year-old Bill Moore of Oklahoma City wouldn’t have dreamed of sleeping at that defining moment. He lay sprawled on the living room floor, watching in silent awe with his father and mother.

In his bedroom, Moore displayed a model of the Saturn V he had bought while on vacation.

“Even then as a child, I realized the space program was something I could have as much knowledge of as any adult,” Moore said. “It was all so new to everyone. It was something I could take ownership of. And I did.”

So did most Americans.

At 9:56 p.m., Armstrong lowered his bulky boot onto the moon’s chalky surface and uttered his first words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Robin Roads, 14, watched from her Oklahoma City home and then reached for her journal. She wrote: “TODAY, JULY 20, 1969 — AT 3:14 P.M. THE LM, LUNAR MODULE LANDED ON THE MOON. NEIL ARMSTRONG WAS THE FIRST MAN OF THE U.S. TO WALK ON A FOREIGN PLANET!”

Roads retrieved the binoculars she received for Christmas, walked outside into the warm, night air, and peered toward the moon in wonderment.

“Our creativity was unleashed,” Elliott said. “Our imaginations unfurled. We had accomplished something great. You know we had to think our way to the moon before we could do it with our feet. But while we gained a great deal, we also lost something in the process. We forever lost the mysteries of the moon.”

News Researcher Mary Phillips contributed to this story.

apollo memories

"We had a color TV then in my house. This was a period when microwaves were coming out, and then we put a man on the moon. I remember looking up at the moon thinking, 'Someone has already stepped foot there.' It was a great door-opener. I'm still amazed even when they lift off." - Ellen Scott of Cordell

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"I had just gotten out of Vietnam and was working in a fire station. We watched it on the TV in the station. I just thought it was absolutely amazing." - Jim Scott of Cordell

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"I remember sitting in front of the TV set watching it with my family. I was interested in the space program, and I thought it was just so cool to think about anyone landing on another moon or another planet." - Jeff Palmer of Kingfisher

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"We were all plastered in front of the TV - just a family thing with the five kids. It was an absolutely phenomenal experience. We all cried. We were just so excited." - Connie Ogden of Oklahoma City

"One of my feelings was a sense of pride. We got there first before Russia. I made stepstools of wood for our kids and painted those first words that were spoken - 'One small step for man.'" - Jim Matheny of Oklahoma City

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"I sat there in disbelief like everyone else. It was unbelievable. Like every kid, I thought it was just the greatest thing to happen." - James Witt of Yukon

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"My grandmother took me and my brothers to Houston one summer in '69 and we were at the Rice Hotel. We had just took a cab to the hotel and there was a red carpet rolled out and tons of people. It was the welcome home party for the Apollo 11 astronauts. It was their first public appearance since they landed, and I saw them." - Doug Matheny of Oklahoma City

The Oklahoman staff remembers

I was 19 that day, on a scholarship from OCU studying French in summer school at the University of McGill in Montreal (and maneuvering through the sleeping-bagged bodies of quite a few fellow Americans/"Vietnam draft dodgers" in park areas on my way to class).

It was in the evening, and lots of people were watching a TV set up outside near the dorms. All that was on the news those days were helicopters and jungles so the scenery was a big change. It was pretty surreal to look at the moon and know that Americans were actually up there, even though it looked like the most boring place in the universe.

When the small step/giant leap moment came, I suddenly felt as far away as those astronauts were. The flash of patriotism surprised me, and all I wanted to do was go home. -Stephanie Sallaska

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We went to a neighbor’s house to watch the landing on their color TV. (The neighbors had named their newborn son, Neil.) -Chris Schoelen

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I remember cheering when the lunar module landed. I was at my grandparents' farm in Moore. And I stayed up way late with my grandparents to watch the first step. I remember watching a Star Trek episode before the networks went back to the moon coverage. I was 9. It is really the first major world event I can remember. -Nolan Clay

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I was 12 in July 1969, and our family was en route to Florida from Kansas. My mom, brother and I were going to live in Florida while father did an Army tour in Vietnam. We were in a motel in Tennessee, I believe. I don't remember the time, but my dad had darkened the room so he could take pictures of the landing off the television with one of those old box-shaped cameras with the top-side viewfinder. You had to look down through the top of the camera to see the image you were aiming at. I was old enough to be impressed by the history, but the thing I remember most is sitting there in a dark room, not moving a muscle for fear of messing up my dad's camera shot. -Mark Green

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I remember the excitement leading up to the night Armstrong set foot on the moon. Astronauts and rockets still fascinated us at the time.

We watched the Apollo 11 take-off and followed its progress every night on TV until it was time for us kids to go to bed.

I recall one of the TV anchors saying if you had a camera you could turn off all the lights in the room and turn up the brightness on the TV and take a picture of the moon landing.

That night we watched the historic moment on our black and white TV and about 15 minutes after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon surface, I grabbed a Brownie camera and shot several pictures off the TV.

I later took them to a local photo shop and had them made into 8x10s. The owner of the shop asked if he could have one and I said yes. I still have that grainy photo from that night somewhere in a box and though NASA has since released great color photos from that night in 1969, I still treasure the picture I took.

It brings back a lot of memories for me. -John Williams

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What I remember was how many people went outside and looked at the moon that day and even took photos -- as if Apollo 11 could be seen from here or that the moon would look any different than it did the night before. - J.E. McReynolds

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My whole family was glued to the television and my mom actually took pictures of the TV. - Melissa Howell

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When I was growing up in Savage, Md., I didn't know many 8-year-old boys who either wanted to -- or were allowed to -- have a sleepover with a bunch of girls. But that's what I did the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

My mom invited the Hackley sisters, who lived across the street, and a couple of my cousins (also girls) to bring their sleeping bags over and camp out in front of our black-and-white Zenith TV to watch it.

What I most remember is that we were also dog-sitting my grandmother's Pomeranian, a spoiled, nasty pooch named Tippy who thought he was a lion. In the midst of all the drama, Tippy decided he wanted to sit on one of the girl's sleeping bags and refused to budge, growling at anyone who approached him.

In an act inspired more by survival than chivalry, I dragged her sleeping bag into the bathroom, yanked it out from under Tippy and slammed the door before he had a chance to bite me.

Tippy missed Armstrong's "one small step" but I saw it, barely. -Mike Sherman

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