Nuala McCann: I remember the moon landing – even though I missed it

Do you remember where you were when man first walked on the moon?

I WAS eight-years-old when that excitement happened. Somewhere in the mists of time, I remember being called by the nun in the long black dress and tall white wimple, the nun with the clacking black rosary beads belted round her waist.

We walked in single file along the gold line on a long ago corridor from the classroom to the assembly hall, where we sat cross legged on the floor to watch the Apollo moon landing on an old black and white television. The nun hushed us, her finger to her lips, and we watched history.

It was a small television. There was the characteristic fuzziness – you had to adjust the knob at the back to stop the picture jumping. Like the picture, the memory is fuzzy, but perfect.

I remember the cold wooden floor, the smell of cold mashed potatoes from the canteen, my pleated wine-coloured pinafore and the awful tie that always ended up in a tight knot.

I'm convinced I heard Neil Armstrong making his "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," speech. I was there... but the truth is, I wasn't.

It was July 20 1969 – the date is everywhere on this, the 50 year anniversary. And, unless the past is another country and they did things differently back then, school was out. It was the holidays in Northern Ireland.

I was probably on a beach in Connemara – far from shops or working televisions, where you could walk for miles and not see a soul. The moon was a far off planet and we had no word of anyone stepping onto it.

It's strange to be fooled, to be caught out by false childhood memories. But there were many moon landings: I never knew that 12 men had walked on the moon.

Perhaps we're 'mooned out' by this stage, with so many shows to commemorate the anniversary. But one caught my eye. It was a recreation of the event using actors as the astronauts, the recordings of the actual words spoken and the footage from Houston.

Back at mission control, the desks were lined with eager men. I couldn't spot a woman. In the spacecraft, it felt like time stood still.

I never knew that Neil Armstrong was religious and had taken bread from his home church which he broke and ate in solemn communion before the final descent to the moon's surface.

I didn't know that the two astronauts flew down in the 'Eagle' with their backs to the moon so they couldn't see where they were headed. It was touch and go – they had 15 seconds of fuel left – and they just about made it.

There was a crazy moment when there was a fault and, as the spacecraft went hurtling through space, a man back at mission control got out a big fat manual and leafed frantically through the pages, looking for the fault number.

I didn't know that the protocol would have been that Buzz Aldrin was the first to walk on the moon. And I thought more about that 'other' Michael Collins, the third astronaut, sat up in Apollo 11 in the silent darkness, waiting and listening for news of his two companions below – Bowie's Major Tom floating in his tin can rings true.

The moon was a distant desert and the astronauts' lives were hanging by a thread. A recent report in the Guardian said the moon is a "lunar junkyard" now, littered with nearly 200 tonnes of human debris.

There are bits of spacecrafts and robots from Russia and America, Japan, Europe, China and India. It is a graveyard of crashed, ditched and broken parts.

There are also 96 bags of poo, urine and vomit left by the astronauts. There are two golf balls from the Apollo 14 mission and there is a feather and a hammer and a monument to those who died.

From a distance of 50 years, it is hard to understand the space race. Millions watched and billions were spent. It was a battle of the superpowers. It took the spotlight off earthly problems – poverty, civil rights. People stopped at that moment, went outside, looked up at the moon in wonder.

Thousands can say just what they were doing at that pivotal moment in history.

To me, it's a mystery.

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