What Lexington’s astronaut did when the first person walked on the moon

Watch the Apollo 11 mission land on the moon

This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.
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This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.

For centuries, men, women and children had looked up and wondered at the moon.

Fifty years ago, retired astronaut Story Musgrave, who calls Lexington home, had a great seat to one of humankind’s most outstanding achievements.

A proud Musgrave, then 33 and an astronaut for two years, watched the action of Apollo 11 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mission Control Center in Houston. Scientists were managing the first manned flight to land on the moon. It was July 20, 1969.

Two of Musgrave’s colleagues — Neil Armstrong and Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin — had landed the lunar module Eagle on a site on the moon called Tranquility Base at about 4:17 p.m. Eastern time. Armstrong put his footprints on the moon about six hours later, and Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later.

Partner Michael Collins soared above them in the command module Columbia to take them back to Earth once their work on the moon was finished.

Amidst all the excitement in the control center that summer night, Musgrave could not remain in place

He had to go outside.

He wanted to take a look at the night sky, gaze at that celestial object that scientists, sailors, farmers, philosophers, poets, lovers and the curious have pondered since the dawn of man.

At a distance of about 238,855 miles from him, for the first time, man was on the moon.

‘One of ours.’

“Wow! Fifty years ago,” Musgrave said in a recent phone interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader about the 50th anniversary of the first lunar walk.

At 83, Musgrave, who resides in Kissimmee, Fla., sounded energetic. He talked fondly of Kentucky.

“I was back there last month, in Bowling Green” He spoke at Aviation Heritage Park to launch the Warren County Public Library’s summer reading program, “Space Celebration.”

“I come to Lexington a lot, and I’m close to the University of Kentucky.,” said Musgrave.

He said he is fond of UK president Eli Capilouto. They met last Jan. 1 when UK played in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

“I really like Dr. Capilouto, great conversationalist, really good guy,” said Musgrave.

The feeling is mutual.

“Story Musgrave’s incisiveness, boundless energy and enthusiasm, and his willingness to share his life story and lessons with our students and our alums have been a source of inspiration to me,” said Capilouto. “He has been repeatedly generous with his time and always willing to give back to an institution that is proud to call him one of ours.

“Indeed, his life story is one we use to convey to our students the value of a UK degree.”

Med school to space

A native of Stockbridge, Mass., Musgrave fell in love with Central Kentucky when he was on a cross-country trip at age 18. He vowed to return. He says he will be buried in Lexington someday.

Musgrave moved to Lexington in 1964 for a surgical internship at the University of Kentucky. He read that NASA was thinking about adding scientists to the astronaut corps and he signed up.

Musgrave had dropped out of high school, joined the Marines and became an aircraft mechanic before going to college and medical school. After his internship, he stayed at UK to study aerospace medicine and physiology. He left Lexington in 1967 for Houston and a 30-year career with NASA.

He is the only astronaut to have flown on all five space shuttle aircraft. He did the first space walk from a shuttle and was the lead space walker in the 1993 Hubble telescope repair mission.

Musgrave retired from NASA in 1997. Today, he is a public speaker and consultant to both Disney’s Imagineering group and Applied Minds in California. He has a website at

‘I’ll never forget.’

Musgrave has kept busy most of his life.

But he was not working that night on July 20, 1969, when he watched — as did 20 percent of the world’s population — the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.

Astronaut Armstrong stepped off the lunar landing module Eagle and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Many think he made a grammatical error by leaving out the ‘a’ before man. “You could tell he had thought about what he was going to say,” Musgrave said. “But you can’t blame the guy for being a little excited.”

Armstrong and NASA insisted for years that static obscured his comment. After repeated listenings to the recording, he conceded that he likely dropped the “a.”

“I’ll never forget the time: 10:56 p.m. EDT,” said Musgrave. “Billions were listening, watching on earth. The support people at Mission Control were at their consoles. The flight plan initially had Armstrong and Aldrin sleeping once they landed on the moon but who could sleep once you were on the moon. They had to get out.”

Musgrave said he was standing that night at Mission Control near Llewellyn “Lew” J. Evans, board chairman and chief executive officer of Grumman Aerospace Corp. in New York. The company was the chief contractor on the Apollo lunar module that landed men on the moon.

“I said, ‘Hey, Lew, go out to the parking lot with me. He said why. I told him I would show him. We went out. He then spotted the moon. We looked at it and he said, ‘Do you know there are people on the moon right now?

“Yes, I said. How about that?”

No cashing in

Musgrave knew all three astronauts on Apollo 11.

“I lived on the same street in Texas as Armstrong. He was a professional, quiet and reserved, almost reclusive. I was closest to Collins and have kept up most with Buzz.”

Armstrong later became an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. He died in Cincinnati in 2012 after complications from heart surgery. He was 82. Aldrin , 89, still advocates for space exploration, and Collins, 88, is trustee emeritus of the National Geographic Society.

None of the three ever “cashed in” on their exploits through celebrity tours and high-priced speaking fees.

“It’s really hard to cash in as an astronaut,” said Musgrave, with a laugh. “You get a lot of chances to talk to schools and the Boy Scouts.”

Aim at Mars

When President Kennedy set before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, the goal of sending an American safely to the moon before the end of the decade, “no one knew if that was doable,” said Musgrave.

“Once we got underway, it was totally clear we would make the goal. We got there in eight years.”

In December 2017, President Trump directed NASA to return to the moon, then aim for Mars. There’s been talk the next American on the moon will be a woman, possibly in 2024.

“Washington is going to have to decide what we are going to do next,” said Musgrave. “We’ve already been to the moon, and it’s fine to be excited about a woman on the moon.

“We haven’t been to Mars. We could pursue that with robotics paving the way before we send humans. It’s all tremendously exciting.”

‘Flat-earthers,’ moon walk denial

Musgrave said he expected more flights to the moon than what has occurred over the last 50 years. Six crewed missions landed men on the moon between 1969 and 1972. Apollo 13 was intended to land, but it was restricted to a flyby when an oxygen tank exploded, crippling the spacecraft. Its three-man crew returned safely to earth.

Musgrave is patient when asked about his thoughts on people who don’t believe any human ever walked on the moon. They believe the monumental event was staged to win the space race with Russia.

“I hear we also have flat-earthers with us today,” said Musgrave. “I can take any doubter to a fine telescope and show them the equipment we have left on the moon.”

‘Never stop exploring’

Space exploration has led to many benefits, ranging from an improved understanding of the human body and new medicines to cellular phones and pollution measuring.

The main benefit, Musgrave said, simply is “exploration.”

“We must never stop exploring. There is so much to discover once we put our mind to it.

“I hope that’s the message people who weren’t around 50 years ago takes from this anniversary.”