We were there that night!: Watching the Moon landing at Jodrell Bank

We know a lot about what was happening in the Control Room here on 20th and 21st July 1969, when the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon. And we know there were visitors here too – the first visitor centre had opened in 1967 and was a hub for local people to watch the moon landing. But we didn’t know the details: Who were they? What did they see? What was it like to witness this historic moment in the shadow of the Lovell Telescope?

Our #CaptureTheMoon challenge, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, called for people to share both photos of the moon and their memories of watching the Moon landing at Jodrell Bank. This prompted many to get in touch to tell us that they were indeed here on that momentous day. John Lill and Dave Edwards have been kind enough to share more about what they remember of that night with our Heritage Officer, Hannah Niblett.

In July 1969 Dave Edwards was a nine year-old space enthusiast who had followed the Apollo mission closely. He and his family travelled from Crewe to Jodrell Bank to watch the moon landing. Even at this young age Dave was very aware of the momentous event he, and the world, was about to witness:

‘Apollo 11 could have exploded on take-off, they could have mis-timed the insertion into moon orbit and carried on into space, they could have damaged the fragile craft irreparably in the numerous docking manoeuvres. No one was sure of how strong the moon’s surface was or if the moon dust would hold the lander’s weight. If they’d have landed unevenly and broken a strut they’d have never taken off and the whole world would have seen them die. When we drove to Jodrell Bank all these thoughts were in my mind.’

At Jodrell Bank, a large screen had been set up on the grass outside showing the BBC’s live coverage of the moon landing. Approximately 300 chairs were out on the grass for visitors, underneath the telescope which became illuminated as darkness fell.

John Lill, a sixth form student studying for his science A-Levels, was here on a school trip from Rothwell Grammar School near Leeds:

‘So there was this TV area, this massive screen, and over on the other side was this huge radio telescope … The impression was that everything at Jodrell Bank was gigantic, you know, the scale and the technology was an order of magnitude greater than anything that I had seen.’

John particularly remembers the descent of the Eagle lander:

‘You could feel the tension in the crowd as you could listen to communication between mission control and the astronauts, and from my perspective it just seemed to take forever. You know, they were nearly down, but they weren’t down, and you think, they’re going to run out of fuel… time just seemed to go so slow! But then eventually they landed it and then everybody clapped and cheered!’

Dave remembers watching that first small step:

‘Watching Neil come down the ladder, it was tricky at first to interpret the images. The lighting was strange and the angles too. We realised we were watching the ladder, and then the spacesuit appeared, and then Neil was on the moon leaving footprints in the dust … All the world watched that moment and could look up at the sky and know that men were on the moon. Being at Jodrell Bank just made it so much more real’.

And indeed there were clear skies over Cheshire that night, as John explains:

‘What struck me was that you could look up in the sky and see this crescent moon, and then down at Jodrell Bank was this enormous telescope and this large screen … We were seeing pictures on this screen of people actually on the moon! I mean, it was surreal.’

There was a special post box set up at Jodrell Bank, so Dave and his mother posted a card to themselves, that Dave still has today.

That first human landing on the moon is still an awe-inspiring achievement. Although in the intervening years we have sent unmanned probes to the farthest reaches of the solar system, no human has been to the moon since 1972. It still feels like a very giant leap. Both John and Dave talked about their expectations at the time, that although significant this was just the next step in the Apollo programme, and that soon there would be a permanent base on the moon, there would be moon hotels, that you’d be able to catch a train to the moon…

‘What was clear is this was an achievement of humanity. The fact that they were American seemed to be irrelevant, we were all part of it. But I think that I just expected this was going to be the start of always having people on the moon.’ (John Lill)

Jodrell Bank had a significant technological role in the space race, but it seems Bernard Lovell and his team were keen to have a role in developing public interest and engagement with science, providing a gathering place for people to share in the experience of the moon landing. This is our first glimpse into the early days of public engagement here at Jodrell, we’re hoping to learn more about this story in the coming months.

Many thanks to John and Dave for sharing their stories with us.