Kirby Kahler woke up at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday to pack his cameras and drive a half hour from his home in Palm Bay to Cape Kennedy in Florida, where he was to meet up with other photo-journalists by 8:30 a.m. for a pilgrimage to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch into space.
Kahler, 67, wanted this trip to mimic as much as possible his own experiences as a 17-year-old freelance photographer working for the Daily Chronicle on July 16, 1969. His story "DeKalb Youth Watches Blastoff" graced the cover of the Daily Chronicle, along with the headline "Three Spacemen Pass Vital First Obstacle."
Kahler said he was one of 3,000 journalists who made the trek to the coast to attend the historic launch. On July 20, 1969, two American men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, part of a three-man crew operating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Apollo 11 stepped foot on the moon.
"The original event I feel shaped my life and gave me purpose," Kahler said, declaring himself a life-long and avid space enthusiast. "Many of the attendees mirrored that sentiment. There was a great sense of patriotism and faith in the space program back then."
Back in July 1969, a teenage Kahler was tasked by former Daily Chronicle editor Barry Schraeder to travel to Cape Canaveral and document his personal experience watching the launch, take a few pictures, and report back.
Kahler said he drove solo straight from DeKalb to Jacksonville, Florida, an 18 hour drive, with a 35mm camera, two rolls of film, and a Super 8 movie camera. Gas was about 35 cents per gallon at the time. He spent two nights leading up to the launch in his car in the press building parking lot: There were so many reporters all the hotels were full.
"I was extremely interested in the space program from the start of manned space flight," he said. "I kept a scrapbook of space news stories and watched almost every Mercury and Gemini flight on TV. When I was at the Chronicle, I would read all the space stories coming across the wire."
For the anniversary pilgrimage, Kahler was one of six of the original journalists returning to reflect on the momentous launch. Kahler said one of them told him he was actually 15 and a half when he applied for press credentials to cover the launch in 1969, even though press credentials required a minimum age of 16.
The lunar landing came four days later, which was watched by hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
It was a culmination for space exploration, spurred by President John F. Kennedy's challenge to NASA during the Cold War: That the U.S. put a man on the moon before the decade was out.
Schraeder said Friday he remembers eagerly watching the newswire, waiting for the confirmation that the astronauts had reached the moon's surface. He said the then afternoon deadline for the Chronicle allowed the paper to print the latest news of the launch for the July 21, 1969, edition.
"I wanted it to be spectacular," Schrader said of the cover. "It was a positive story and a commitment made by JFK years before, which sadly he didn't see happen. But for the U.S., it was a chance to really be number one in the world. So I thought something like that deserved the biggest front page possible."
Government funding for NASA has been cut significantly since then, but Kahler says from his point of view, enthusiasm for the stars is growing again.
Kahler went on to attend Kishwaukee College and earned an associate degree in science, and then a bachelor's degree in science from Northern Illinois University. His career led him to the healthcare industry, and he is a retired nurse living in Florida.
A world watching
At 9:32 a.m. EDT July 16, 1969, the Saturn V roared off Pad 39A, its astronauts hurtling toward their destination and destiny 240,000 miles away. The command module, Columbia, and the attached lunar module, Eagle, reached the moon three days later. The next day, July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface in the lunar module.
At 4:17 p.m. July 20, with NASA waited anxiously at Mission Control, Armstrong said “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Armstrong descended the nine-rung ladder first, his left boot, size 9½, touching the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. Aldrin followed him out 18 minutes later.
Armstrong, who expertly steered the lunar module Eagle to a smooth landing with just seconds of fuel left, died in 2012 at 82. Aldrin, 89, who followed him onto the gray, dusty surface, was embroiled recently in a now-dropped legal dispute in which two of his children tried to have him declared mentally incompetent. He has kept an uncharacteristically low profile in the run-up to the anniversary.
Many of the Apollo program’s other key players are gone as well. Of the 24 astronauts who flew to the moon from 1968 through 1972, only 12 are still alive. Of the 12 who walked on the moon, four survive.
A vast majority of Earth’s 7.7 billion inhabitants were born after Apollo ended, including NASA’s current administrator, 44-year-old Jim Bridenstine, who is overseeing the effort to send humans back to the moon by 2024.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to state that Kahler's picture of the launch did not appear on the cover of the Daily Chronicle, rather, his recounting of the experience did. And Kahler received a bachelor's degree from NIU. The Daily Chronicle regrets the error.