All photos in this post were taken during the Central Park Moon-In, July 20th, 1969, by Parks Photographer Daniel McPartlin. Courtesy of the NYC Parks Photo Archive.
This Saturday, July 20, will mark 50 years since Neil Armstrong made one giant leap for mankind and set foot on the lunar surface. On Earth, hundreds of millions of people held a collective worldwide breath, then let out an ecstatic whoop of awe and excitement as man met moon. Earthlings around the globe may have wished to be aboard Apollo 11, but New Yorkers knew at least one thing for sure: If they couldn’t go to the moon, they could definitely dress up as the moon, head to Central Park, and witness the out-of-this-world walk from any of three 9’ X 12’ screens, offering coverage from NBC, CBS, and ABC. So began the greatest watch party in New York’s history. Roughly 8,000 New Yorkers, dressed all in white, sprawled across the Sheep Meadow for a blowout celestial-celebration known as The Moon-In.
Despite a heavy downpour that began at 7:30pm and lasted more than an hour, members of the moon-mad metropolis staked out spots in front of the screens so that, at 10:56pm Eastern Standard Time, when Armstrong planted foot and flag on the moon, they had the best seats in the city. The New York Times called the gathering “a cross between a carnival and a vigil” where “hippies careened wildly across the meadow in what some took to be a rain dance,” until “a great cheer rose from the crowd” as Armstrong made his mark.
At the bottom of each of the three screens the words “Live From the Surface of the Moon,” reminded viewers that they had entered a whole new world. Thousands of faces stared at those screens in rapturous silence, watching Armstrong alone amongst the craters, until Buzz Aldrin climbed out of the Lunar Module twenty minutes later, and received his own ovation.
While Aldrin floated above the lunar surface doing mobility exercises, earth-bound revelers were treated to a Jazz version of “Blue Moon”; when the astronauts were busy collecting moon rocks, a rock band kicked up a few jams in the Sheep Meadow.
To commemorate the long history of stratospheric exploration, the wonderfully named hobbyist organization Aerostates Ealioon Flying Field, of Tolland, Connecticut, launched their own craft from the Sheep Meadow, navigating a hot air balloon 150 feet above the park.
That night, the brotherhood of man was the order of the day. Telephoning from the moon, Armstrong noted that it was “a great honor and privilege for us to be here representing not only the United States, but also men of peace of all nations, men with interests and a curiosity, and men with a vision for the future.”
Catching a similar spirit in advance of the landing, the City itself decided to provide a way for people to “share the moment together.” For two weeks, between July 14 and July 28, 1969, the Sheep Meadow was officially christened “The Moon Meadow,” and while NASA got ready for the Moon Shot, New York got ready for the Moon Watch.
As they waited for the Lunar Landing, crowds at the Moon-In could feast on frozen Milky Ways, or opt for the more adventurous “blue cheese moon picnic.” They were also treated to a “synthetic aurora borealis” called Lunechild TV, a collage of NASA footage, a host of inflatable sculptures by Kip Coburn, and some taped remarks from the inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller. Those who thought it was a marvelous night for a moondance moved to the musical stylings of the Local 802 of the Musicians Union, or let loose inside the “moon bubble.”
As the Moon-In wound down, and the rain started up anew, Mayor Lindsay gave closing remarks, calling the Moon Shot “an extraordinary evening for all New Yorkers.” But in the control room at NBC, then vice-president of the network’s news division Donald Meany, mused on the truly egalitarian nature of witnessing that extraordinary moment, “One thing I think this is doing is to bring people together. The picture is going everywhere in the world by satellite. I hear they’re getting a great picture in Bucharest. And in Belgrade. And, you know, nobody has the inside track on seeing these pictures. The scientists in Houston, the President of the United States, all of us in this room, perhaps Serbian peasants—they’re all seeing the same fantastic live pictures at the same time. Nobody any better than anybody else, really. Maybe that holds something pretty good for all of us.”
Lucie Levine is the founder of Archive on Parade, a local tour and event company that aims to take New York’s fascinating history out of the archives and into the streets. She’s a Native New Yorker, and licensed New York City tour guide, with a passion for the city’s social, political and cultural history. She has collaborated with local partners including the New York Public Library, The 92nd Street Y, The Brooklyn Brainery, The Society for the Advancement of Social Studies and Nerd Nite to offer exciting tours, lectures and community events all over town. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Neighborhoods : Central Park