Celebrating 50 years since humans first walked on the moon

    Published: 21 May 2019
    Moon landing


    According to Bryan Adams, the summer of ’69 was an auspicious one. The summer of ‘19 marks fifty years since the passing of that fabled summer and commemorates a number of significant anniversaries, including the birth of yours truly and the monumental moon landings of the Apollo 11 mission.

    Children have always been fascinated by the concept of space travel, and the moon landings anniversary is a perfect opportunity to explore the topic to the full.  When I was a young child at school, this historic mission was recent history and ground-breaking territory. For our current pupils, space technology is commonplace.  We live in an age where children cut their teeth on i-pads, mobile phones and laptops; where the immediacy of the internet means knowledge at our fingertips, and global interconnectivity is an expectation.  For children to understand the significance of this anniversary, we need to put the event firmly into the cultural and scientific context of the time.

    Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon at around 3am GMT on 21st July 1969. The event was watched by around twenty percent of the world population of the time. The very act of televising the event and broadcasting it to the world (in colour) was a feat of engineering in its own right as satellite imagery was only in its early infancy. I’m sure children today would be amazed to learn that whilst most households had a TV set by 1969, only 100 000 TVs in the UK were colour. As I knew that our household didn’t own a TV until the mid-70s, I was interested to know whether my parents had had a chance to witness these scenes. This is the answer I got from my dad: “Yes! We didn’t have a telly in the house but my mate Bert brought his portable TV into the factory.  It was black and white and the screen was only about 9 inches but the whole of the night shift crowded round to watch. It was really grainy but you could see Neil Armstrong walking down the steps and it was amazing.”

    Watch film footage of the first moon landing.

    What must it have been like to be the first people to land on the moon?  What would viewers watching this at home have thought?

    Did you hear what Neil said as he took his first step? (“One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”)  What might that mean?

    The current primary history curriculum has a heavy focus on the distant past and perhaps because of this, there are very few quality books for children that explore the 1960s. Those designed for primary children are even rarer and many are out of print.  One that has had a recent reprint and is still available is: My Family Remembers the 1960s by Kathryn Walker, which features first hand recounts and photographs of life at in the UK at the time of the moon landing. However, the recent past is living history and one that children can readily access by interviewing family members, neighbours and friends. Some of the finest history research I have ever read has arisen when I have asked children to interview their grandparents about their own childhood experiences during the war or at the seaside.

    Try asking your class to interview their grandparents, many of whom would have been in their teens at the time of the moon landings. You could get a fascinating snap shot of life fifty years ago by displaying the vox pops with photos of the interviewees from 1969.

    One book that fits the theme of memories of the event is The Sea of Tranquillity written by Mark Haddon (author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) and illustrated by Christian Birmingham.  This stunningly illustrated book explores the moon landings from the perspective of a child who is fascinated by all things lunar and dreams that one day, humans would walk on the moon. I love the way you are drawn into the child’s daydreams and aspirations and found myself looking up at the moon with that shared sense of wonder.

    For a factual narrative of the events, try One Giant Leap: A historical account of the first moon landing by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Mike Wimmer. The dramatic, vivid text will bring the events to life for children and present them with factual information in an engaging way. I was mesmerised by the lyrical quality of the language and the imagery that Burleigh conjures such as: “Dark ridges rise like forbidding walls, spidery shadows creep in the rising sunlight, boulders loom up like cars.” However, whilst this is a beautiful and originally presented book, I find myself frustrated by the lack of children’s books to feature actual photographs of the Apollo 11 mission.  When history can be brought alive by real footage and photos I feel that we should take advantage, as this can make events seem real and tangible to children. However the National Geographic Society can always be relied upon to deliver the goods and To the Moon and Back: My Apollo 11 Adventure (National Geographic Kids) written in collaboration by Buzz Aldrin comes up trumps. This book is delightfully immersive, with colour photos, folding pop ups and first hand recounts from the second moonwalker. It’s quite expensive, as books with paper engineering tend to be, but would be a prized addition to any book corner.

    Both of these books provide a treasure trove of juicy facts for children to practise notetaking and information sharing.  A great way of doing this (and thus avoiding children copying out chunks from books or the internet) is this ‘oldie but goldie’: 

    Children work in pairs to find two exciting pieces of information, which they record in their own words.  They then sit opposite each other as A and B. All children A are sitting in an inner circle with their two facts; their partners B are sitting opposite them with a notepad and pen, forming an outer circle. At the teacher’s command, all children B move around one place clockwise to sit opposite a new child A, who then reads out their own two facts. After two minutes, the teacher calls for a stop and each child B moves around again to take the next lot of information. At the end of the process, the teacher can support the children to group the information under headings and model how to link ideas cohesively, or the children can work in their pairs to do this independently.

     Award winning author Hilary Robinson has written a delightful book to mark the moon landings anniversary. Jasper: Space Dog is a hilarious fiction told in the form of letters between Charlie Tanner, aged 8 and space experts at a space centre. Charlie writes on behalf of his dog, Jasper, who wants to be a space dog. Jasper is full of questions about the moon landings, which the expert patiently answers, unpicking misconceptions such as the moon being made of cheese and providing the inquisitive pair with a wealth of information about space travel. I loved the way the facts were seamlessly woven into the story and the book’s appeal to me was its accessibility to younger readers. One eye-opening nugget of information I learned about when reading Jasper: Space Dog was that the astronauts on Apollo 11 could not get life insurance for the journey. To mitigate loss of income for their families in the event of a disaster, the men signed hundreds of photographs and items that could be sold by their family if they didn’t make it back home!

    Children could write their own letters to ESA (European Space Agency) posing questions on behalf of a pet or younger sibling. It’s a great way to find out their starting point on a subject and getting them to consider what they might like to find out.

    Of course as well as factual material about the events surrounding the voyages to the moon, the characters behind the adventures provide a rich seam of fascinating information. When planning a biography unit with two Year 5 teachers recently, we focused on the life of Neil Armstrong using One Giant Leap by Don Brown and discovered a short film at:


    Neil was a notoriously private man and this is a very rare interview where he talks about his life and the events of 1969.  There are some fabulous bits in this but you would probably want to select some key parts to show, especially around the ten-minute mark. Another key figure worthy of study is Katherine Johnson, whose mathematical calculations were essential to the early manned flights into space.  There are some great biographies of her written for children but I particularly like Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley and illustrated by Laura Freeman. This book bears the same name as the fantastic film which charts the true story of four black women whose contribution to the Space Race changed their lives as well as ours. Shetterley’s text firmly, yet sensitively, asserts the significance of these incredible mathematicians at a time when lawful segregation and societal attitudes made it almost impossible for a black woman to succeed in the workplace.

    Use the books to help children draw out key facts, create timelines and find quotes that shed light on these ground-breaking characters. I love this one from Katherine Johnson: "Tell me where you want his space ship to land, and I'll tell you where to launch it."

    The 4000 people behind the moon landings have not only inspired generations of space enthusiasts and would-be astronauts but they have left a legacy of everyday items that were created for the journey: items such as freeze-dried food, water purifiers, satellite tv and memory foam mattresses. Even less ubiquitous objects such as robotic limbs owe their origins to the NASA programme.  And that brings us full circle to 2019. There were only six manned landings and the last one was in 1972. However, despite the prohibitive expense, there are still developments in -and huge fascination for- space travel. Unmanned missions have their sights set on Mars and exploring distant space, but manned flights bring us exciting images and new heroes, including our very own Tim Peake. Tim’s photographs of his Principia mission can be viewed here:


    What I especially like about this collection is that Max Alexander, Tim’s friend and professional photographer, provides artistic commentary alongside Tim’s scientific captions.  The lyrical language used in these provide rich material for poetry and descriptive writing with children.

    There can be no doubt that any topic on the moon landings will provide children with myriad opportunities for writing- whether that be biographical recounts, news reports, explanations, poetry or even a dip into science-fiction. But, perhaps more importantly, the occasion gives children a chance to explore the more recent past: tangible history and history in the making. As educators, we need to familiarise children with current affairs and significant turning points in society. We want them to ask ‘How do the events of 1969, impact me? Where does the first moon landing sit in the timeline of travel, inventions or culture? In what way was Neil Armstrong’s step truly a leap for mankind and where are we heading now?’ And for the very young, we have the chance to connect with a time more accessible than 500 or 5,000 years ago.  After all, fifty years isn’t too long ago, is it?

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