Moon landing: the Czech experience

Photo: NASA

The 1969 moon landing glued millions of people around the world to their TV sets 50 years ago. For Czechs and Slovaks, this historic event had a special, bittersweet, taste. Vít Pohanka spoke to two Czech journalists who had the unique opportunity to cover the Apollo flight both from the USA and Prague.

Karel Pacner,  photo: archive of Paměť národa
It was less than a year after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies that crushed the Prague Spring, an unsuccessful attempt to reform communism. Yet, Czechoslovakia was still relatively free in the summer of 1969, even though the new communist leadership was already tightening the screws on society.

The live broadcast of the Apollo 11 flight was thus one of the last whiffs of freedom before the totalitarian regime regained its grip. Karel Pacner was then a thirty-something young journalist working for the dynamic Czech daily Mladá fronta. Space exploration was his beat and he was determined to cover the Moon landing as extensively as possible:

In January 1969, the Americans announced that they were finally going to the Moon in July of that year. So I asked my editor-in-chief if he could arrange the trip. He said „Of course, I will speak to the management and take care of it. Our paper, Mladá Fronta, had not been under any political supervision, yet. The management immediately agreed with my assignment and the only problem was money. The deputy manager responsible for finance called me and asked: „Do you really need 500 dollars? Do you realize what it means for our budget?!“ And I told him „Listen, both you and I know that I should get much more for the three weeks in the US.“ So he even apologized and that was the end of all trouble.

Karel then flew to Washington, where he met his friend Jiří Dienstbier, a Czechoslovak Radio correspondent in the US. Together they drove down to Florida, where they witnessed the Apollo 11 launch. Karel was feverishly sending reports via Telex, which, back in those days, was the fastest connection available. Reading the stories via telephone would have been way too expensive.

Karel Pacner in front of Apollo 11 on Saturn V,  photo: archive of Paměť národa

After witnessing the launch of Apollo 11, he travelled to Houston to the Manned Spacecraft Centre where the mission control was based. Here an unexpected problem arose:

I did not have any typewriter with me. I thought there would be plenty of them in the press center but when I arrived, they have all been already reserved for other reporters. I was lucky enough to meet professor Paul Campbell, who was then the dean of Military College of Medicine in Tucson. I had met him in May of 69 in Prague where he attended a meeting of the Committe on Space Research, or COSPAR. I told him about my difficulty and he said: “Look, there is another press center just two miles down the road in the King Hotel. It was organized by the private companies that worked on the Apollo program and Saturn rockets. There are plenty of typewriters and, whatsmore, you can eat there for free, there, too.“

Apollo 11 crew - Neil Armstrong,  Michael Collins,  Buzz Aldrin,  photo: NASA
So, content and well-fed, Karel Pacner awaited the historic moment. There were only around 600 journalists on site. Most of the media had decided, that the landing itself could be covered from the live TV feed which NASA provided for free. After all, the real „action“ was taking place some 400 000 kilometres away from the Earth. Karel, nevertheless, made the best of the regular detailed NASA briefings and excursions around the centre. To watch the landings, they had monitors in the press centre and a special theatre with a huge screen:

When the time for the first moonwalk came, we were sitting in the theater. What was quite funny, we saw the picture upside down, at first. But after a few moments, the NASA technicians got it right. So we were sitting there listening to all the live communication between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who was helping him to get out from the lunar module. Than he said those memorable words about a one small step for a man and giant leap for mankind.

There was a tremendous roar of cheers, all the reporters interviewed each other asking: „What do you think about it?“ in many languages. For some time it was not even possible to follow the moonwalk. But after some time all the noise subsided and we could follow the astronauts again, watching them working on the Moon.

It was an atmosphere of victory of the Western world. Nobody openly said that the Soviet Union had just lost the race to the Moon but everybody felt it that way.

After the landing, Karel managed to squeeze in a short visit to Los Alamos in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was exploded and where there is a museum documenting this segment of history. Then it was time to return to Czechoslovakia.

Photo: NASA
Now 83, Karel Pacner went on to become a prominent and very prolific journalist and writer on the subject of space research and the history of intelligence services. He received many rewards for his work but he still considers the chance to cover the Moon landing from the United States the biggest of them all. And he considers it great good luck that it happened when it did:

I have to say that if the Americans landed on the Moon just one month later, In August rather than July, I would hardly have been able to go there.

Another Czech with unique memories of the Moon landing is Jan Kolář. Today, he heads the Czech Space Office. Back in 1969, as a young enthusiastic expert, he commented on the live broadcast from the Moon landing in the studio of Czechoslovak Television:

It was a truly global event. I do not think that something like that will happen again. It cannot be repeated. For the first time people from this planet flew, landed and walked on another celestial body. It was a historic moment that will be forever recorded in all books, encyclopaedias etc. Children will learn about it school as they are now. I would wish for the young generation to have such an experiance but I am afraid they won’t have it. I am really glad that I lived in that time and had an opportunity to be one tiny little part of fit.

Although in later years Czechoslovak TV did broadcast a few of the Moon landings live, for years to come it would cover almost exclusively Soviet space flights. American achievements, such as the Space Shuttle, would be presented as a mere footnote, rather than the main news.