08/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Eagle Has Landed

It's been a sometimes magical and many times saddening last 15 months of anniversaries during which we have all -- or at least many of us -- have played the game of where were you when.

April 1968 when Martin was shot?

May of '68 when Bobby was?

December of the same year when men circled the moon for the first time?

Each for me, an etched memory.

I was... I Corps in Viet Nam covering that war when King was assassinated.

...on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise in the Tonkin Gulf when word reached that Robert Kennedy had been killed too and knew the story we had just shot was pointless.

... at Walter Cronkite's elbow in a freezing New York studio on that Christmas Eve in 1968 when Frank Bohrman read the bible to the world.

And so we come to one more that is magical in its remembering and saddening in the lost opportunity it represents and bittersweet in that it comes days after the passing of Walter Cronkite whose reporting of it remains iconic.

It is the week that started 40 years ago this past July 16 and ended 40 years ago (today) on July 20, 1969 when a man stepped onto the moon for the first time. How long had we looked up? And suddenly someone was there.

And my memory of the when and where of it? It is a mix of remembered emotion, Japanese noodle soup at 4am in Tokyo on what was their morning of July 21st.

I'd covered and helped produce coverage of the space program at CBS News from the very start in 1961 so on launch day July 16, 1969 I was back again on a press site, part of CBS's huge commitment to the event. Launch days were never not electric, but this one on that clear July morning was a match for them all. Out there three miles from the Cape Canaveral press site sat a 36-story rocket, on top of which sat Armstrong and Aldrin who would touch the moon first and second and Michael Collins who would look down from lunar orbit and forever more manfully deny the envy he had to feel when he stayed in lunar orbit and they did not.
Depending on how you count generations, there are at least two living now who believe they understand a space launch because they've seen the Shuttle get up and go in its very wham, bam thank you ma'am departures from a Kennedy Center launch pad but they do not.
That lunar rocket was 36 stories of weight and mass and explosive fuel. When it lit, it quite literally had to gather itself to leave the pad and then it took fully ten seconds to clear the launch tower it sat next to.

What's next was all about Physics 101. Light travels faster than sound so you saw if first, rising silently and slowly off the pad and past its launch tower. Then you heard it as a deep rib-shaking bass thunder that you felt more than heard. Marry the impact of that sight and sound with the fact that two of three men on top of it all were going to attempt humanity's first landing on something other than the earth and there you have it.

Wow moment? Well, yes.

Two and some hours after the launch of Apollo 11 it was departure from earth's orbit for the moon and departure for the rest of us to cover history.

My destination? Tokyo as part of the "global reaction" piece of a CBS News coverage effort for which "unprecedented" was fair description. LA first and then Tokyo. The 11 crew was heading out at 25,000 miles per hour while I crept along at 600 or so. In 17 hours I did 11,000 miles to Tokyo while Apollo 11 covered several hundred thousand to reach orbit around the moon.
Once in Tokyo, the hunt was on for the story or stories we would try offer up the New York producers.

What about Apollo Mania? Not in evidence.

Or huge gatherings to share the moment of landing? Not likely. It was going to between four and five in the morning Tokyo time.

A city immobilized as it waited for the moment? Ditto.

Anything going on? No, not really?

And so the next questions was how was I going to find out what was happening a quarter of a million miles away. No streaming audio then. No streaming video. No cell phone to pick up to hear the CBS broadcast or tap into Mission Control. Nothing for me but Japanese television which was, after all. going to be in Japanese. And the only working TV I could find in the middle of that Tokyo overnight was in NHK's staff cafeteria where the bleary-eyed ate their noodle soup and rice cakes and tried to make sense of the American who had his head jammed up against a speaker.

I listened as hard as I could and made out mission control in English under excited Japanese commentary. There was the altitude call out. There was something about a "master alarm" which drove me crazy. And then, very faintly, I heard "Houston, the Eagle has landed." I was on my feet. Big fist pump. And around me? Nothing. It was a giant-who-cares moment as the commentary continued and whatever small viewing audience was out there was informed that 着陸しているのイーグル as indeed the Eagle had.

And as it turns out, once the euphoria of the moment passed and the next six launches put 10 more men on the moon, it became a "so what moment" in this country as well.

The moon? Been there and done that. We had already turned our attention to something called the Shuttle and plans to build a "space station." Would we build on the technological leaps that took us to the moon? Would we continue "to go where no man had gone before?" Would we take the next giant step? Nope. We'd just go into orbit aboard the Shuttle again and again with the regularity of the 5:05 leaving for points north and, save for two astronaut-killing disasters, bore the eyes off ourselves.

We'd managed, somehow, to turn the grand adventure of space exploration into a monstrously expensive giant yawn, which when you think about it is a helluva trick.

And we're about to do it again. The Shuttle and the International Space Station are about to be history. After billions spent, the ISS is scheduled to deorbit in 2016 which is NASA speak for be destroyed in while we head back -- finally -- to the moon and with luck and will beyond if we don't debate it to death first.

It's will we need to pick a goal and a deadline and just do it because if we can do that out there, we can do anything that needs to be done back here and along the way remember that we've been an exploring nation from the start and it's the desire and will to explore that has made us what we are.