20 Jul ‘Dream of ages comes true’
PS. Krishnaswamy wasn’t particularly happy with what AIR Madras did just minutes before the Apollo 11 mission was supposed to take off. In a letter to the editor published on 21 July 1969 in The Hindu, Krishnaswamy wrote that the radio service, which was relaying from the Voice of America’s commentary on the Apollo 11 take-off on 16 July, cut off its relay “exactly at 7pm. Whereas the take-off took place only at 7.02pm.” The radio service instead switched to Thirai Ganam—a film songs programme—Krishnaswamy lamented.
Krishnaswamy wasn’t the only Indian listening in anticipation as American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off in the Saturn V rocket from Florida to go where no human had gone before—the moon. Millions across India looked up at the sky and wondered how and if this miracle could actually be achieved.
I sit in the darkened microfilm division of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in Delhi in front of an Indus Super Carrel Motorized microfilm reader, its amber light emitting a soft, almost lunar radiance.
As I scroll through microfilms on which microphotographs of newspapers from 1969 are stored, I find headlines, cartoons, advertisements and articles that not only marvelled at the moon landing, but also described the impact of the event in India.
20 July 1969 was a busy day for Indian newspapers. The news of Apollo 11’s progress and eventual success overlapped with two crucial developments in Indian economy and politics. On 19 July, 14 banks in the country were nationalized following a government ordinance. Meanwhile, president V.V. Giri had just accepted deputy prime minister Morarji Desai’s resignation from the Union cabinet. Earlier, Desai had been divested of his finance portfolio by then prime minister Indira Gandhi as he was opposed to the ordinance. Both these stories were prominently covered on the front pages of major newspapers: The Hindu,The Times Of India, The Hindustan Times and The Statesman.
However, 19 July 1969 was also critical for the Apollo 11 mission—the spacecraft was placed into a lunar orbit before the lunar module Eagle attempted a manned landing. The front page of The Hindu carried a story from the news agency AP that detailed how Apollo 11 entered the field of gravity “early today and the three astronauts became sons of the moon”.
The real excitement showed on 21-22 July. “US ASTRONAUTS LAND ON MOON” said The Hindu’s front page on 21 July.“Dream Of Ages Comes True: Armstrong And Aldrin Will Walk Today,” said the supporting headlines right at the top. A Reuters and AP story from the space centre in Houston described how Armstrong and Aldrin Jr “from Earth settled down onto a soil no man had ever touched before”.
In the late 1960s, covering international events from India was not easy. A former reporter for an Indian national daily, who covered the moon landings from London in 1969, says he “remembers sitting up all night with a friend to watch Neil Armstrong’s moon landing…. It was just another of those international stories that could be accessed more easily from London than in India,” he adds. So most newspapers relied on news agencies for regular updates about the mission.
The Hindustan Times called the landings an “endless list of firsts” in its 21 July 1969 edition. “Man Lands On Moon” said the banner headline emblazoned on the front page. It was supported by a deck headline below it: “Flawless Touchdown—Space Heroes Prepare For Epic Walk”.
Mugshots of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were accompanied by pictures of the Apollo 11’s primary landing site on the moon. The Hindustan Times’ evening newspaper also published a special “Moon Landing” supplement to mark the historic occasion.
The inside pages, meanwhile, had reactions to the landings from prominent leaders and scientists. Indira Gandhi hailed the landing as “the greatest and most daring of scientific feats”, according to a report in The Hindu on 22 July. In a story on page 7 of The Times Of India the same day, Vikram Sarabhai, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and an eminent figure in the Indian space programme, described the Apollo 11 mission as the “greatest of all adventures man had as yet undertaken”.
What the ads saw
From 20-22 July, the papers were peppered with advertisements that obliquely showcased the impact of the landing. The Bank of Baroda, for instance, was “willing to finance agriculture—even on the moon”. Another in the 21 July edition of The Statesman from Blackwood Hodge Equipment had a cartoon of an astronaut collecting moon samples. The creative read: “Today, the first man on the moon will scoop up 65lb of soil and rock. Today, earthmoving and construction equipment supplied by us is excavating and hauling millions of tons of earth and rock on India’s major nation building projects.” An advertisement in The Times Of India saw a relatively unknown instant gulab jamun mix brand, Hima Gulab Jamun, congratulating the three astronauts who were shown in their space suits, feasting on one of India’s most popular sweets.
“Events like that, which define humanity, will inspire almost everyone. In those days, there was no need for brands to hard-sell anything. Awareness and popularity was everything. There was not much to sell apart from that. It was still not the product or trademark era. Big events used to take centre-stage for big companies to show solidarity with the country and also with the government,” says K.V. Sridhar, founder of the Mumbai-based creative outfit HyperCollective. Sridhar was in high school when the moon landings happened. “It was like a miracle,” the 61-year-old says.
He recalls hearing…