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Moment #6: Moon Landing

Rogers brings the moon down to Earth for Canadians

By BILL BRIOUX

The July, 1969 moon landing was one small step for a man, but also a giant leap forward for Ted Rogers.

His company, Rogers Cable, helped bring the moon landing to thousands gathered in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. Technicians set up giant TV screens in the 4.85-hectare urban plaza surrounding Toronto’s cool new City Hall.

For many, it was a chance to see what is generally considered the greatest TV show ever made. They witnessed Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong’s decent down the Lunar Module ladder and onto the powdery surface of the moon — all on a clear, crisp cable feed. We all thought it was a miracle. The studio, after all, was 238,000 miles away.

It was a savvy marketing move by a cable company that had launched just two years earlier. At a time when most Canadians still pulled TV signals over the air through rooftop antennas, Rogers had planted a flag in the important greater Toronto market with 60,000 subscribers. Across Canada, only about a million homes had cable, representing around 15 per cent of the country.

The Toronto public screening would not have happened if Ted Rogers didn’t have the nerves of an astronaut. After investing in infrastructure and buying up rival systems, his risky cable venture was close to bankruptcy. Rogers clung to his vision, however, knowing that the cable industry was growing by 25 per cent per year. He had defied the odds and landed his moon shot.

Following the Apollo 11 excursion to the moon and back was all anyone was talking about that summer on Earth. You couldn’t tweet about it or post it on Facebook or Instagram, or heaven forbid even blog about it. You just lived it, in wonder, every waking minute. If you were lucky, your parents bought you a plastic model of the Lunar module to glue together, or a tiny little, bendable astronaut named Major Matt Mason.

The tour guide on this mission was Walter Cronkite, chief anchor of CBS News, who basically owned the story. It was Uncle Walt who sweated the takeoff and landing and the mind-blowing moments when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off what looked like a pool ladder and bobbed around the dusty lunar surface.

I’ll never forget the awe of it all, and the promise. The idea that people could do anything, that the future was going to be very cool. Everything leading up to this had been a tease – Stanley Kubrick’s movie from the previous year, “2001: A Space Odyssey;” the IMAX outer space projections at the groovy, backlit Planetarium next to the Royal Ontario Museum; Space Food Sticks. We’d all be taking commercial jets to the moon by the time we were as old as Armstrong, 38 at the time.

Those civilian moon runs may still be on the drawing boards, but it took a futurist like Ted Rogers to show that big dreams can come true. Thanks to his relentless determination, in the 51 years since the moon landing, Canadians have enjoyed a steady delivery of technical innovations that not even Neil Armstrong could have envisioned.

It’s not always easy to see the future; harder still to seize it. Clearly, Ted Rogers had that gift. He brought the moon down to Earth for thousands gathered in Toronto that July, allowing a glimpse for many into our own tomorrows.

That summer of 1969 was a time for giant leaps. Wherever you were, you could look out and see shooting stars and satellites streaking across the Milky Way. It was an age of reachable wonders, and all you had to do to be inspired was to look up.

— Bill Brioux is not an astronaut (he’s too down to Earth). Read his take on television daily at brioux.tv.