How could such courage be?

Buzz Aldrin on the moon
Photo by Neil Armstrong

On 20th July 1969, the world held its collective breath as the Apollo 11 mission made its historic landing on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s immortal words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” echoing around the globe and cementing the moment as a touchstone of human achievement. One of the millions of people to watch the live broadcast was Cecil Beaton, a leading photographer and Oscar-winning designer of sets and costumes who, having failed to get much sleep after the thrilling event, described it in his diary the next day.

The Diary Entry

Reddish: July 21st, 1969

Unbelievable thrill of watching on television, like six hundred million others, man’s first journey to the moon. We could not believe that we were actually watching men up on that bright crescent that could be seen in the sky from the garden on this marvellous summer’s night.

Irene Worth, Elizabeth Cavendish and James Pope-Hennessy were staying and we sat glued with pulses throbbing and fears that there might be some last minute, unforeseen disaster. The terror continued. How could such courage be?

The whole thing was a great American triumph, marvellous beyond dreams from the scientific point of view. The heroes used poetic and imaginative phrases. Instead of the expected ‘say, brother, you should see these colours!’ Armstrong said: ‘That’s one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind.’ They performed faultlessly their prescribed tasks and answered becomingly the congratulations of the whole world from President Nixon. Before they returned to earth, they left an olive branch and medals in homage to the astronauts who had died in earlier, unsuccessful attempts to reach this fantastic goal.

The household was up at 6 am to watch the splash-down, all but James, suffering terribly from DTS — what a tragedy! — and so vivid was the way that this expedition had eaten into the subconscious that none of us had been able to sleep soundly.

An event that we will never forget and will never be able to understand.

Further Reading

Cecil Beaton’s diaries are a treat. The originals—145 manuscript volumes!—are kept at St John’s College Library Special Collections, University of Cambridge, and during Beaton’s lifetime, six volumes were published:

  • The Wandering Years (1922-39)
  • The Years Between (1939-44)
  • The Happy Years (1944-48)
  • The Strenuous Years (1948-55)
  • The Restless Years (1955-63)
  • The Parting Years (1963-74)

Visit the website of Sapere Books for links to those books, all of which are recommended.


Diary entry excerpted from The Parting Years: 1963-74 by Cecil Beaton. Copyright © The Estate of Cecil Beaton 2018. Sapere Books. Reproduced by kind permission of the Literary Executor of the Late Sir Cecil Beaton and Rupert Crew Limited.

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