As I type this, today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 liftoff. The first moon landing holds a special place in my heart, as I grew up only a few miles from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. My uncle worked at the Cape, and many of my classmates had family who also worked there. Indeed, the main reason many of us were even there in the first place was due to the space program.

It was an exciting time, being a young boy in the heart of such an amazing location – warm, sunny Florida with astronauts and launches on a regular basis. I had many models of the Saturn V and the lunar module. I knew the details of the flight, the steps required from launch to splashdown. And now we were on the edge of the big one – the real landing.

I never had any doubts; with the total faith of childhood, I knew everything was going to be fine and soon the landing would be a reality. It was another hot, bright day; we were in the house, watching Walter Cronkite prepare us for liftoff. As with previous launches, the plan was to watch until the rocket cleared the tower, then rush outside and wait for it to come up over the trees. And that’s exactly what happened. I remember quite clearly, standing on the driveway beside my house, watching the white-hot point of light moving steadily upwards into the sky. After a minute or two, the contrail would change, the light would flicker; first-stage separation and second-stage ignition.

I stood there, a little boy watching a moment in history, and I remember saying to myself, “I must not forget this.”

The weight of a half-century has nibbled away at that memory, but the core of it remains. I was there. I saw the launch with my own eyes. When it finally faded away from view, one would take a moment to look at the exhaust plume rising up from over the horizon, slowing being pulled apart by the winds, then rush back inside to let Cronkite guide us through the rest of the launch, now invisible to the naked eye (but not quite the long-range camera view).

A few days later, the go-ahead was given and down Armstrong and Aldrin went, to a rendezvous with history. When Eagle touched down on the Sea of Tranquility, we were there, along with most of the rest of the world. I was impatient, and didn’t quite understand the delay. We’re down, open the hatch and let’s get going! But it took several hours to go through the checklist, get suited up, and all the other requirements we couldn’t see.

Finally, the external camera was deployed, and we could switch from the CBS simulation (a man in a suit crawling out of a mockup LM) to a live transmission from the moon. The fuzzy black and white image that is now so well known began to take shape. Neil made his way down the ladder, spoke to Houston, then announced he was going to step off the LM now.

And thus, we all passed into a new age. I got to stay up late that night and watch all of it. I don’t remember going to bed, but I must have been very tired. I do remember thinking how sorry I felt for everyone who would be born afterwards, how they missed this epic moment.

Many years later on another Apollo anniversary, the three astronauts came back to Florida and were in a motorcade. My aunt and I went to the mall and stood alongside the road watching as they drove past, each one being driven in their own convertible, smiling and waving yet again at the assembled throng. It was the first time I had ever seen any of them in the flesh, and as Armstrong rolled by, I yelled “Neil” so loudly that he turned and looked in my direction, still smiling and waving. But directly at me.

A few years after that, I was on my way home from work one afternoon when I heard on the radio that Buzz was in town, signing copies of his science-fiction novel. The bookstore was only one or two blocks from where I screamed at Armstrong several years before. I immediately drove to the bookstore and purchased a copy just to get a signature. Who would turn down a chance to meet Columbus or Magellan?

I waited in line and when my turn came, Mr. Aldrin asked my name. He signed and I extended my hand, which he graciously shook. Then he returned the book to me and that was it. I still have it. Between my name and his own, he wrote “Ad Astra” – To the stars.

Now of course, it is a half-century later since that one small step. Half the people who were in the room with me that night are gone, including my aunt. Walter Cronkite and Neil Armstrong are gone as well. My own wife and child were born into a world in which man has always been to the moon. I am part of the last generation to have experienced a time before that ever happened. It’s like looking in old encyclopedias at artist’s depictions of the planets, whereas now we’ve photographed them all (even Pluto!).

When I watch the old footage, the tears well up; I’m not only watching a defining moment for the Human species, I’m watching my own past. I can see a little boy who could look up at the moon before it ever had a footprint upon it. Time rolls on in its relentless way, but it can’t change the fact that I was there the night it all changed forever.