US- India relations (history)

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Bombay visit of US astronauts

Vikram Doctor, July 20, 2019: The Times of India

Crowds gathered to greet Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins as they travelled from the Bombay airport in an open car
From: Vikram Doctor, July 20, 2019: The Times of India

Of all the things the Apollo 11 astronauts who achieved the moon landing 50 years ago might have expected back on earth, tickets for the Maharashtra State lottery might have been the least likely.

Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins (and their wives) were each presented with lottery tickets on October 27, 1969 just before they left Bombay for Dacca, Bangladesh as part of a global tour of triumph just months after they blasted off the earth on July 16 and splashed down eight days later.

According to the report in the Times of India of October 28, 1969 Navinchandra Kajaria, the Bombay citizen who gifted them the tickets, said he hoped “that the astronauts who were successful in conquering the moon would be equally lucky in winning the Rs 3-lakh Diwali jackpot of the Maharashtra State lottery.”

History doesn’t record if their luck stretched that far. But it was a sign of the enthusiasm the astronauts were greeted with in Bombay, the 19th stop on their world tour. On Sunday, October 26, they travelled from the airport in an open car, waving to crowds along the way, and TOI reported that the crowd at the public reception was “not only the biggest that was ever seen at Azad Maidan, but also the most disciplined. It sat in the afternoon sun before the arrival of the astronauts and as they left the crowd raised three loud cheers…”

The stage was a replica, to same scale, of the Eagle lunar module. The Eagle had been left in space, with one part on the moon and the other, which the astronauts used to leave the moon, left to crash back onto the lunar surface later. So finding a replica in Bombay must have been a surprise. “It is a particular pleasure to see our friend, Eagle, once again,” said Armstrong.

Even when the astronauts left on Monday morning, the crowds were there. “Many factories and schools in areas where the motorcade was to pass by allowed workers and children to come out…” reported TOI. This time they were in a closed car so the flower garlands thrown by onlookers ended up on the truck of photographers that followed the astronauts.

The event was a public relations triumph for the US during its intense Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. Doing a global tour so soon after the end of their mission — including a 21-day quarantine period after the astronauts returned, just in case they picked up any moon maladies — made them ambassadors for American abilities, though they were always careful to emphasise the global nature of the mission. At Azad Maidan that day, for example, Armstrong emphasised that “74 nations had co-operated in the space research programme. The contribution of Indian scientists was well known and their technicians played a direct role in the moon voyage.” Edwin Aldrin said that 1969 would be remembered as “the year when the world became smaller and international cooperation increased.”

The contrast with the Russian space programme was marked. Despite its earlier successes in getting satellites, and then manned missions, into space — which directly sparked the American effort to get man to the moon — the Russian efforts had lagged since then. And it was always going to be hobbled by barriers of language and the greater secrecy of the Soviet system.

Armstrong was back in India the next year, along with Charles Conrad from Apollo 12, to receive Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) medals from President V V Giri. They received standing ovations from both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, where the Speaker, G S Dhillon, said that through them “we have the first touch of the moon in this parliament.” Almost unreported in all this was that four Soviet cosmonauts were also there to get FAI medals. Through the 1970s, astronauts regularly toured the world, implicitly championing American openness and accessibility. In 1973, Eugene Cernan from Apollo 17 addressed a press conference in Delhi where he gamely tackled questions like whether travelling to the moon increased divorce rates among astronauts. “Divorce did not have anything to do with space travel,” he said. “Some would have been divorced even if they had never ventured into space.”

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