TELEVISION'S greatest moment came for us just before four o'clock on a dark, m uggily warm summer's morning when on the screen Of our set there appeared a pattern of dusky shadows with, a few instants later, a finger of downward movement. This was the first man descending on to the moon.
There we sat seeing what was happening less than a second earlier, 240,000 miles away out in space. It was communication at its apogee. It was the culmination of a multi-million dollar, many-year effort. And we were there, a bit sleepy and in pyjamas, watching.
Inch by inch man approached the lunar surface. We saw the foot moving down the ladder. We heard the first report of what the orb is actually made of. "It's almost like powder," came the scarcely distorted voice from space.
Then we saw man moving on the moon, the bear-like figure progressing floatily here and there with the thick papoose of a pack on its back.
And all the while, it should be recorded, the excellent and alert Peter Fairely and Paul Haney kept us deftly and easily abreast of what was happening, as they had been doing since six o'clock the previous evening. Together with the most U seful information-printed black band at the bottom of the screen they held us wonderfully clearly in the picture. A considerable and praiseworthy feat.
Communication between my typewriter. now disturbing the summer dawn, and your reading eyes is much more cumbersome than space links, and by the time our process is complete the first moonmen should be past dozens of new dangers and back on earth. The sample of moondust I heard, and almost saw, being collected Neil Armstrong was just out of camera range will perhaps already be under analysis. . So now I must recall that before the climactic moment there was an awful lot of pure waiting around to do. And the question facing our two rival purveyors of television was: What do you do while you wait? It is a question whose answer requires a little deeper thought than at first appears.
What, it asks in effect, what were we waiting for? If it was an event of really world-moving importance, anything else other than a simple concentration on the matter in hand, never mind through how many hours, would be unthinkable. If it was something less than world-shattering, then it was a nice jujdgment just how much less it was.
The stern old BBC's answer was that the event was interesting, but not interesting enough to banish "Dr. Finlay's Casebook," nowadays a somewhat paltry programme, from the air. ITV's reply was equally typical. It had the best of both worlds: this was an event which should displace everything else, but only in favour, partly, of a sort of improvised "Saturday Night at the Palladium.
I am inclined to think the BBC were in the right of it. This was quite something, but it was only quite something on the way to somewhere mildly important. Splendid that we shall one day whizz hither and thither through space and think little of it, but not so splendid as the dropping of the first atom bomb was disastrous.
Let me say in fairness to ITV's Man on the Moon evening that, although parts of it were excruciating (the phone calls from pert small boys and fearful Russiaphobes, rather than the dreary but harmless variety acts), parts of it were pretty interesting.
Whenever, in fact, David Frost turned the affair into further instalments of the "Frost Programme" and we had those moral clashes he specialises in, then we were precluding the event in the best possible way.
I liked Roger Bannister and others on "What makes men go far?" (each man should have his personal just scaleable obstacle, the four-minute-miler said) and even "Would you like to be in Armstrong's spaceshoes?" was a thought-provoking enough question. Best of all was the panel Mr. Frost assembled to talk about the Russian way.
The difference, said an invincibly humourless German scientist, was "a point of principle." He was right, however. And the local Pravda man put it emphatically (though he smiled) when he said "We have our different way."
It is a way that leads to prolonged silence on earth while things are happening in space, and to a real preference for sending machines to observe rather than men to first-foot it though doubtless had a Russian got there first Radio Moscow would have chortled with the best.
And, despite television's greatest moment, I still hanker for the Russian way. Those last few seconds of the final descent were, simply, hazardous. What we might well have seen was the elaborate extinction of two brave men on a dead, rockstrewn surface. I would rather have waited and had the recording.
Yes, that moment when in the last instants of the downward plunge things had got a little confused and then suddenly a man in a white shirt in the Houston control-room leapt up and waved with a gesture like a deep fielder sending the ball hard back to the wicket and one knew they were down, that was a heart-stopping moment.
Yet I would still have told it, and those first moon words "Tranquillity Base. Eagle has landed" for a more dignified, less bread-and-circuses, attitude.