The Apollo 11 mission sent ripples across the world as man landed on the moon. How did Indians wake up to the news?
Lounge goes into the archives to see how the event registered amidst news of a deputy prime minister’s resignation and the nationalization of 14 banks
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 stories from his grandparents about moon rabbits, which originated in Chinese folklore. The dailies in July 1969 also carried small stories on this legend. The front page of The Hindu on 21 July carried a snippet headlined “They Will Look Out For The Girl". This UNI story mentioned how ground control in Houston told the astronauts on the moon to watch out for a 4,000-year-old Chinese girl and a white rabbit. Legend goes that the beautiful Chinese girl was exiled by her husband for stealing his “elixir of life". The Hindustan Times printed a similar report on 21 July with the headline: “Look Out For The Bunny Girl".
Cartoonists at these newspapers were hard at work too—trying to capture the buzz around the landing. The Hindustan Times front page on 22 July, for instance, carried a Sudhir Dar cartoon titled “An Endless List Of Firsts", which showed an unimpressed moon looking up at the spacecraft and the astronauts that had stepped foot on its surface. The caption said: “My first headache!"
“It was a phenomenal event, no doubt," says Gurugram-based Dar, 87. “My idea (behind the cartoon) was that the moon was a peaceful place and now man had landed on it…. Now, the problems start. That was really the short message I wanted to convey in my own way."
Dar, who began his career with The Statesman, says the real test of a cartoonist was to be funny without words. He recalls how the late B.G. Verghese, editor of The Hindustan Times from 1969-1975, was a man who believed in brevity. “As they say, brevity is the soul of wit. I would try and keep my captions (for the cartoons) down to the minimum and sometimes George would even beat me to it," adds Dar, who worked with The Hindustan Times for more than two decades.
Armstrong’s iconic footprints left their imprint everywhere. In Bengaluru, The Times Of India noted on 22 July that three hibiscus seedlings at the Lalbagh botanical garden had been named after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, and another after the scientists behind the project collectively, to commemorate the historic achievement.
In Delhi, most people “glued themselves to radios shortly after midnight last night when the epic drama unfolded itself, turning into reality what has been a mere dream for centuries," wrote the late special correspondent Ashok Vyas of The Hindustan Times in the 22 July edition. From businessmen to homemakers and a physics professor in Delhi University, a cross-section of people commented for the story on man’s landing on the moon, “which reflected their own imagination about the adventure". The “ugly craters on the surface of the moon", wrote Vyas, had also disillusioned many teenaged Delhi girls, including a new entrant to the university in July 1969 who said, “If anyone compared my face with the moon, I will be immediately reminded of the craters and their ugliness. I will not like it."
20 July this year marks 50 years since the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. The success of the mission does not detract from the near-inconceivable notion of going to the moon and back; it continues to be an awe-inspiring feat. On 22 July 1969, The Hindustan Times carried an editorial—"The Wonder Of It"—which perhaps comes close: “On Sunday night the Moon was still another world. Today it has become part of Man’s domain and Man a proud yet humble creature of a wider universe…. The wonder and majesty of that step was shared through television and radio by millions on this Earth, united for one precious moment as a single Family of Man. Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin walked the Moon as ambassadors of Earth."