50 years ago, humans set foot on the moon for the first time — and Toronto watched in awe

50 years ago, humans set foot on the moon for the first time — and Toronto watched in awe

The Toronto Star has a long, rich history of capturing the city in photos. Every Monday this summer, we will take a look back at images of the city that we’ve likely forgotten.

From the view in Nathan Phillips Square, the moon looked the same.

Small. Yellow. A sharp waxing crescent dangling comfortably over the Earth below. Like business as usual.

But something was different on July 20, 1969.

Undetected by the naked eye gazing upward, two humans dwarfed by their surroundings were hovering tentatively over the moon’s surface. One was navigating the ship. The other was preparing to open a door.

Some 400,000 kilometres away, tens of thousands of Torontonians gathered near the recently opened city hall to catch a glimpse of the unprecedented scene on a 30-by-40-foot outdoor screen.

The turnout at Nathan Phillips Square was far greater than the city had expected, the Star reported in the next day’s paper. The 30,000 people occupied nearly every square foot of the public space, flattening the shrubbery and crowding the pool as it drained.

Across the city, families huddled around their televisions and radios as the Apollo 11 prepared for landing. Passersby stood outside storefronts whose owners had pressed their TV screens outward against the shop’s street windows.

Some fell asleep before the astronauts exited the spaceship, but not 8-year-old Jordan Bullman. He was “ecstatic at seeing the moon-walk on the giant screen,” wrote the Star. “I wish I was with (the astronauts),” he admitted.

Others spent the hours of anticipation reflecting on the significance of the occasion. “The landing on the moon opens up, at least theoretically, the possibility of getting away from it all,” mused Charles Cairns, 17, watching from the square. “There are no hassles up there on the moon.”

Late that night, a hush fell over the crowd at Nathan Phillips Square as Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder. Someone shouted: “Look, look, there he is! He’s only got two more steps to go!”

The crowd started to whistle and clap. The cheering got louder. Then, as the world watched in awe, the astronaut stepped onto the powdered charcoal surface below.

Fifty years after that one small step, Torontonians are again celebrating the moon walk that once captivated audiences.

At York University, astronomy professor Paul Delaney has orchestrated a moon-viewing ceremony and screening of the film Apollo 11.

“The moon landing was one of the pinnacles of the 20th century from a scientific and a human endeavours perspective,” he said. “It was something that really brought people together and now, 50 years later, we have a new generation of people saying it’s time to go back to the moon and beyond.”

Delaney vividly remembers sitting in his Grade 8 classroom, watching the moon landing on a small black-and-white television.

“It was really an incredible moment. Even for an eighth grader, you knew that something really big was happening,” he said.

The anniversary has spurred a renewed interest in space exploration as well.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada will be a partner in a NASA-led project to establish an outpost for lunar exploration. “Canada is going to the moon,” he declared at the time.

The plans have Delaney excited. “Going back to the moon, or to new places like Mars, with people is really important. And I think it’s going to happen soon,” he said.

On the day after the landing, the Star’s editorial board hailed the landing as a “grand achievement.”

“We salute the moon men and the army of technicians behind them,” the editorial read. “They have written history in the planets.”

Jacob Lorinc is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @jacoblorinc

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