“It’s true! They’ve done it! Men land on moon” reported the Times of India hailing Man’s history-making first step on our natural satellite on 20 July 1969. Never before had we done something so great, leaving the shores of our planet to walk on another cosmic surface. Since then, every feat we have and will achieve will be measured by the greatness of this feat.
At home, we were to have our rendezvous with the trio just three months later. On 26 October, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins landed at the Santa Cruz airport, Mumbai to be welcomed by a sea of excited Indians straining their necks to catch a glimpse of the “moon-landers”.
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The astronauts were on a global tour, called the “Giant Step Apollo Tour” and Mumbai was the 19th of their total of 22 stops.
And among the thousands of people thronging the street near Crawford Market to give the party from NASA a warm welcome, were two people eager to see them.
1969: Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin & Michael Collins parading through Mumbai on Giantstep-Apollo 11 Tour pic.twitter.com/33WQpH9aHa
— Mumbai Heritage (@mumbaiheritage) March 10, 2015
One was a five-year-old boy sitting on a railing, having been hoisted there by his uncle so the little one could see the heroes he knew so little about. The other was a man who gifted Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and their respective wives tickets to the Maharashtra State Diwali lottery.
It was a hot and sultry October afternoon when the US President’s jet landed in Mumbai. The astronauts, along with their wives, got out to loud cheers. Author Mustansir Dalvi recalls that extraordinary gathering where a million eyes tried to follow that special car in the cavalcade heading towards Raj Bhavan.
“Flanking motorcyclists in white uniforms formed the avant-garde. The cavalcade arrived soon after, dark cars, as I remember, and in one of the three red faces in suits, their arms out, waving. Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin. As they swept past us, I looked at them, they looked at me, and I waved back and waved and waved,” writes Dalvi for the Scroll.
Arches with the words “Bombay welcomes the moon-landers” were erected at regular intervals and scores of people lined up the road to wave at the astronauts. Responding to this overwhelming audience, they waved from the car, with an occasional joined-hands gesture of Namaste, during their 20-km route to the Raj Bhavan. They were headed there to attend a reception hosted by PV Cherian, the then governor of Maharashtra.
The other fan present in the crowd, alongside his daughter, was Raja Ramanna, a physicist who played a pivotal role in India’s nuclear programme.
He was to meet the astronauts at an event later in the day. But, the father of the Indian nuclear bomb did not want to miss the opportunity of letting his daughter catch a glimpse of the three.
In the evening of the same day, the astronauts were scheduled to attend another event at the Azad Maidan where about five lakh people greeted them. The stage was a replica of the Eagle lunar module built at the same scale for the event. “It is a particular pleasure to see our friend, Eagle, once again,” Armstrong had commented.
“It was almost late evening. All three were very relaxed and spoke about the landing with a great sense of accomplishment. But I found Collins to be the most stable and frank speaker. He was the one who went around the moon, while his two colleagues landed on the surface. He showed no signs of envy or jealousy,” noted MGK Menon, a scientist and policy-maker who was then the director of the Atomic Energy Commission. Vikram Sarabhai, its chairman, presented the NASA astronauts with a carved elephant.
The first day of the tour had gone quite smoothly but the next day, however, would prove to be quite amusing for the astronauts.
On 27 October, Navinchandra Kajaria, one among the thousands of fans, presented Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and their respective wives with lottery tickets. Speaking to TOI, he said that he hoped “The astronauts who were successful in conquering the moon would be equally lucky in winning the Rs 3-lakh Diwali jackpot of the Maharashtra State Lottery.” Unfortunately, there are no reports to either confirm or deny whether the gifted lottery tickets won the lottery.
Reading such anecdotes, one wonders how many people can affirm the fact that they have met a person who made history? Let alone those who have met or even seen the men who were the first to land on the moon. For about a million Indians, 26 October 1969 was that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and thankfully for us, a way to live that day through the memories of the fortunate few.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)