A Moon Story: a tale of Astronomy, a Square-Dancer, and The Oregonian for the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

This story is adapted from my Twitter thread @astrohyde on July 21st 2019, for easier reading and perusal. The Apollo 11 Moon landing meant a great deal to many people, but for one square-dancer from Oregon, it was simply an important event, to remember and save. Monday July 21, 1969 The Oregonian newspaper published a special moon landing issue.

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This issue was saved from obscurity by my great Aunt, Dorothy Ann Cook (nee Hyde) of Eagle Creek, OR. She passed away in Jan 28 2015 at the age of 92. As the executor and trustee for the estate I was privileged to find that she had managed to keep several old issues of the Oregonian newspaper, marking significant events… this is one of those. What follows is the story from 1969, and of course, a little bit about Dorothy Cook, who saved this issue for decades, preserving it, and making this conversation possible.

The ‘slippery’ moon dust

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I had always wondered if I would get a chance to digitise them fully, but for now, I have captured some screenshots from the stories of the day (camera shots for now, I’ll update if I find a big enough scanner). The ‘slippery’ moon dust and its extremely fine nature are something that new astronauts will have to take into account.

The moon was easier to walk on than what they originally thought

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I hadn’t realised that the moon was easier to walk on than what they originally thought, that’s one of the many reasons why it’s so great to keep these historical stories. Dorothy Cook kept these safe for years. I know she wasn’t a space fan, I think she probably found those fellas a bit full of themselves. Even so, the human connection this event engendered, would have resonated and was obviously recognised.

One small step

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Dorothy was probably one of the most practical (pragmatic) and down to earth people I’ve ever come across, she had renown in Clackamas County and probably neighbouring areas as a square dancer and meals on wheels driver.

It’s interesting to me as a scientist, that this survived because of her. She saved this unique experience in a back room for decades…. One small step in preserving history

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“It has a stark beauty all it’s own”… when I was studying astronomy and science in Arizona, I had no idea that this amazing document lay in a backroom of a farmhouse in Oregon.

Like the astronauts that landed Dorothy never hesitated when she decided what needed to be done.

This could explain why I only got a matter-of-fact ‘oh’ when I tried to tell her about my studies back in ‘02.

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One of my most striking memories of her was when she’d take her ‘cat out on the hills to clear brush, 20 degree gradient of mud and she drove with one hand (the other one was holding a beer). She must have been over 75 at that time. Can’t help but think there’s someone who could have done lunar samples.

It’s exactly that sort of natural and healthy strength that got her to 92, and, even today, astronauts through training. I imagine she wouldn’t have blinked at training, but she also wouldn’t have left her chickens behind.

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“It’s a magnificent sight out here”… reminds me when I went back to visit Oregon when I got my Bachelors of Science, I remember looking at the stars with Dorothy and telling her about Astronomy and Physics, she said “I don’t know much about that…”

I remember thinking that the landscape in Arizona had an otherworldly quality, little did I know then that these actual otherworld images were hiding out back in Oregon.

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It was this same Dorothy, for all the years in between, who kept safe a remarkable copy of the Moon landing coverage. Like Michael Collins, a bit of an unsung hero of astronomy, albeit one of strange archival. I was quite surprised that the box with rat poo had such amazing and undamaged items at the bottom!

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As her niece, executor, trustee and someone who grew up around Dorothy the fact that she kept these safe, of all things, speaks to me on this anniversary of the moon landing. She knew a lot about bugs, and gardening, and the practical things… meanwhile a space bug was hiding in her back room all the while.

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Dorothy saw the Mt. St. Helens eruption, both world wars, and maintained a connection to her land that is hard for me, now in my 5th country, 3rd continent, and who knows how many apartment buildings … to understand.

Interestingly, the seismic package on the moon bears some resemblance to the devices today that monitor Mt. St. Helens and the other volcanoes around Oregon.

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What I love about the old coverage from this 1969 issue of the Oregonian is that they show the many experiments brought along with them.

They didn’t JUST walk around. The laser ranging retro-reflector (LRRR) is still used today!

For more on the LRRR see: https://www.lpi.usra.edu/lunar/missions/apollo/apollo_11/experiments/lrr/

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The costs at the time for the Moon Landing must have seemed almost fictional numbers at the time, 24 billion!

However, any one (individually) of the worlds current top 10 billionaires could fund this several times over (sorry economists, time value of money, I know).

To someone who saw the tail end of the Great Depression in the U.S., and grew up in the time just after… like Dorothy, this would have been a hard cost to justify.

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Testing the age of the moon and the worry about contamination both from and to Earth is something that we will likewise have to consider if humans decide to venture out into the solar system once again. Today, there are still regulations for sterilising spacecraft (especially Mars landers) for this reason.

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“If there’s no air on the Moon, how can there be wind” … this would make a great science riddle, maybe for my next intro Astronomy class!

Dorothy would not approve of riddles, but if I could make it a cowboy quip, I’d be doing right by her!

In the spirit of cowboys and astronauts, it was often literally do-or-die, or as they say: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”

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I love how they include the banter from the astronauts in the extracts, I had no idea they found a purple rock on the Moon! The purple is thought to come from differences in lava flow. The other benefit of getting the original news release is the old advertisements from the 60s.

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Almost the entire transcript of the communications with the “Eagle” and the orbiter is included, although I thought it was mean to describe Collins as “desperately wanting in on the historic conversation”.

I mean, he was already stuck in the orbiter.

There were a good deal of summaries like these, I can only imagine this is perhaps one of the reasons why he tended not to do interviews.

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“Eagle, you are go for landing” The famous start to the descent onto another world.

Preserved in original paper by the most down-to-earth lady, Dorothy Ann Cook.

Was it really just a coincidence, she lived in ‘Eagle’ creek all that time? (yes, probably, although I think it’s kinda cool).

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As a kid, I remember I was always impressed with the homemade jam, candy and caramel popcorn that Dorothy would make.

Given what the poor astronauts had up there, they would have been so very jealous.

That said, I still have the candy recipe if NASA would care to reconsider my astronaut application.

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For context, I did try to apply to the astronaut program when I was 16 or so, but I didn’t have my degree yet, and to be fair, would not have made the health check.

Dorothy on the other hand, was one of those strong, hearty, healthy and fast folks that you rarely see… outside of astronauts that is.

She would have been good at the quips too.

“Some people follow wagon tracks while others break new trails.” (cowboy wisdom)

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The poor Alaskans! How did I never know! Poor folks up north, missed the moon coverage! It does seem a bit like they are bragging about their local coverage in Oregon here, but Alaska did at least get its first live television broadcast in Anchorage for Moon coverage.

It is worth remembering how much of the US is STILL unconnected to digital life as we know it. Today, it is cell coverage that is most important to folks, and again, it’s Alaska that has the largest areas without service. https://www.uscellular.com/coverage-map/coverage-indicator.html

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Space Sale! This is my favourite add from the July 21, 1969 issue of the Oregonian, I would buy this even today.

I still love my tape cassettes! I had one similar to this but I used it to record from the radio (cheating I know).

Come to think of it, I got it in around 1992… from Dorothy, as I recall!

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The accuracy of Jules Verne and the science fiction that came before the fact was well known at the time of the Moon landing, but it seems like you see less of that now.

If you get the chance, I highly recommend having a read of “From the Earth to the Moon”.

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Interestingly, the astronaut selection had some bumps and sidesteps on Apollo 11. Significantly, William Anders stepped aside to let Collins go because he saw that there was going to be a problem in the “upper echelons” of government “struggling with the question of where we should go from here”. How right he was. Unfortunately, there were only a few missions after this.

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Amazing hoax! Another great tidbit given in context of the moon landing, a recap of the famous Aug 21, 1835 the New York Sun scandal.

It turns out they published an extremely widely circulated account of humanoid creatures on the moon! Terrain, vegetation, and beaches, oh my!

You can read more here (check the lithographs!): http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_great_moon_hoax

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“Projected lunar landing site was barely hit Sunday when the Apollo 11 module Eagle… set down on the moon at 1:18 p.m. PDT.”

The uncertainty in landing position is another aspect that is easy to miss today, they had to roughly estimate so much, and even and 8 mile wide target was a huge victory to hit.

One of the great things about square dancing is the amazing clothes, Dorothy Cook had a beautiful set of square dance skirts that were divided in her estate.

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Square dance is a bit of a lost art in Oregon, but, to make an analogy with Moon landing, I hope we see a resurgence of both.

The moon suit cost shocked many readers of this article, you could buy a whole lot of square dance outfits with that kind of money!

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“Too thrilled to applaud” This was also me, upon finding this newspaper! It’s a dream like atmosphere when we think about other worlds, but it’s worth remembering the human cost as well.

I really love how they made sure to mention the awe and hope, as well as the down to earth concerns.

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The conversations recorded on the mission were released as transcripts and printed widely, even places (like Alaska, see above) which didn’t widely broadcast the transmission got copies and to say it captured the imagination is an understatement.

“You guys are getting prime time TV there”. This was a big deal for a long time in the US, although streaming is gaining popularity fast.

I have to wonder how long people will understand this reference for.

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“You got a bunch of boys about to turn blue.” This is a great example of the down to earth language folks would use at the time.

Like watching an episode of Bonanza, it always reminds me of Dorothy, although she preferred Walter Matthau, who (like many of us on leaving a career) said, “I retired once a couple of times”. As a data scientist, astronomer, engineer, etc. I can’t help but smile when I see the transcripts here.

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Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were a favourite duo of Dorothy Cook, but no one, and I mean no one, beat out Marty Robbins.

If you ever get a chance, look up the yodelling cowboy… I think the “best of” tape would be a must play for any future Moon mission.

Here’s Marty with “Continental Suit”, if you’re interested in the top of my Moon playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJad_AeJ4_U

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In the Oregonian article, I found a good section of artists representations.

It was hard to get live pictures and stills were challenging to capture.

Screen shots have spoiled us in the modern day, but we have some great art from the Apollo era.

This same style was used in a lot of the space fiction that came out both before and after the mission.

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I love the art done here for Michael Collins being left above while the lunar module descends, it really captures the tension of the moment. I have always been a fan of art/fiction/science crossovers and it’s great these art pieces made it to print.

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Dorothy Cook saved the prints of all this Moon landing art, even though, I can confidently say, it was not her style.

She loved seagulls, and cats.

One of the first paintings I ever accurately captured a real-life image was a seagull watercolour I gave to her (little kid pride!).

She saved that too!

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The setup of scientific experiments on the Moon (like the LRRR) meant that this mission in particular, paid science dividends for years to come. Although our robots are getting better and better, human exploration does have some advantages.

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Taking time to do things right, setting up a lasting legacy.

These are things that Dorothy Cook and the moon landing had in common.

She never got a call from the president, but, what she set up was harder to define, and more valuable to me, personally.

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In funny and interesting trivia, I made sure to capture this little side article from the issue.

I am sure the Pope praise would have been a humorous topic of the day.

Pope jokes have always been very popular!

However, I will say, it also shows just how much humanity managed to come together on this day.

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To end, with hope and nostalgia…

At the time of the Apollo 11 many people, (especially in the science community) at the time fully expected us to continue in our outward push, and a 1985 Mars date seemed exceedingly realistic.

When the missions stopped and the interest shifted away from exploration, it seemed to some like the Mars dream died, but as Jack Lemmon said “Death ends a life, not a relationship”. Towards that end…

I like to think our relationship with the Moon did not end when Apollo stopped. Likewise, our journey into space, and even our ability to come together as humans over common goals and dreams.

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Dorothy Ann Cook passed away in 2015, and here she is today, having a Moon Landing Anniversary conversation with all of us.

For the Twitter thread related to this article, see @astrohyde.

Astrophysicist by training, Data Scientist by trade. Assistant Professor at York University, Toronto ON, Google Cloud Certified Instructor-Twitter @astrohyde