One giant leap: how the Evening Standard was first in the race to cover the moon landing

I saw it, apparently. When Neil Armstrong stepped on to the surface of the moon on July 21, 1969, it was 3.56am on a Monday in Putney, and my parents got me out of bed to watch it. I was three, and my sister Rachel was one: we can’t remember if she was allowed to sleep on. 

More than 53 million households worldwide tuned in to watch the event, with all three UK channels carrying coverage and BBC1 and ITV both broadcasting overnight for the first time. If Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 had kick-started the idea of a TV broadcast as a shared cultural event in Britain, this was its apotheosis. James Burke, one of the BBC presenters, later called it the “greatest media event of all time”, though typically for the era, almost all of the footage was subsequently lost or wiped. 

Within three hours of Buzz Aldrin stepping on to the moon at 4.15am, though, Londoners could for 5d purchase a souvenir edition of the Evening Standard, which hit the streets at 7am, much earlier than the first edition usually appeared. Beneath the headline The First Footstep a full colour picture — unusual for the time — shows a space-suited astronaut stepping off the ladder of Apollo 11’s gold and silver Eagle lander and on to the Sea of Tranquility. Behind him is the iconic image of the earth, a delicate blue-green orb in partial shadow, which was to change forever humanity’s perception of itself and its home.

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“Human footsteps crunch noiselessly on lunar soil — never to be erased for perhaps a million years,” the article begins. “One of two brave men gazes at this alien world through gold visors with almost unbelieving eyes. No wind, no rain, no sounds shatter the eerie silence. They are there!” It is the only story on the front page, sharing space with an advert for spark plugs, another announcing the arrival of the new Audi 100LS at a Park Lane car dealership, and a caption promising further colour pictures on the centre and back pages. 

Demand for the paper was unprecedented, and the presses in the basement of the art deco Express building in Fleet Street, where the Standard was then based, kept rolling, with fresh reels for the colour pages ferried frantically over from Samuel Stephens, the specialist colour printers in south London. By 8pm, when Armstrong, Aldrin and the Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins were already on their way back home, the Standard had printed 1.2 million copies across 11 separate editions, twice the normal number.

The question is, how? The Standard was and is more nimble than its competitors, and the full story of the landing could be put together for later editions as soon as Armstrong began his “one small step” speech. But the imagery that could be transmitted from the moon — and which was featured in other newspapers — was blurry and monochrome (the picture quality improved between Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s moonwalks as the signal moved from California to a stronger radio-transmitter in Australia). Like the moonwalk itself, the Standard’s souvenir edition was a big gamble. Six weeks before the landing the paper’s managing editor Jocelyn Stevens, who had been in the job only seven months, called his executives together and announced that a commemorative edition would be produced on the Saturday celebrating the mission’s success, 24 hours before moonfall happened — or didn’t. As James Burke said this week, looking back on Apollo 11: “There were so many ways [the astronauts] could have been killed.”

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“In the utmost secrecy, colour pictures of the blast-off were received from Nasa, and a facsimile of Armstrong on the moon was produced for the front page,” recalled Dennis Griffiths, the Standard’s production director at the time. The colour pages were put together by Saturday evening. The caption of the main cover image clarifies that it is a “reconstruction” (in fact, surely a “pre-construction”) of the moment man set foot on the moon, though this fact may of course have been lost on many readers. 

Front page of the Evening Standard dated July 21 1969 (Evening Standard )

Printing of the first edition commenced on Sunday morning and was completed by lunchtime, after which the management team and the press crews retired to the nearby Grapes public house for a tentative celebration. After which they presumably crossed fingers and uttered fervent imprecations to the gods of Fleet Street until 3.56am. When Armstrong’s boot touched moondust, Stevens must have led the staff in a collective sigh of relief. Years later he recalled that the paper’s proprietor Lord Beaverbrook had warned him “that if they did not land and one copy had gone out, he was fired”. Stevens apparently replied: “Chairman, I will already have resigned.” Instead, the Standard’s editor Charles Wintour threw a champagne party for the staff on the Monday night, to mark a media event like nothing before or since.

In a world where the race to be first with the news has only become more intense and pressured, gambles are still taken. I can personally remember a front page that predicted the gender of a celebrity’s baby before the announcement was made: it was a 50-50 call, and it was wrong (though it was corrected in later editions). But it’s doubtful that a bet of such magnitude will ever be made again. At least, not before we go back to the moon.




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