Fifty Years Ago

David Black by Saturn V-JSC

David Black standing by the Saturn V rocket on display at Johnson Space Center, Houston. This photo was taken in 2004.

It was a Sunday afternoon in July and I was nine years old. In my hometown of Deseret, Utah we attended our normal church meetings, going to Sunday School in the morning. Everyone was more excited and restless than usual. We wanted to get home as soon as possible, you see, because this was the day when Apollo 11 was going to land on the Moon. I don’t remember what we ate for Sunday dinner, but I can guess we were glued to the old Zenith black and white TV set we had in the living room. We watched Walter Cronkite’s coverage as the Lunar Module descended to the surface. He used models of the spacecraft to show how the LM had separated from the CSM and was now firing retrorockets to slow down to the surface on a pre-programmed descent.

Cronkite with CSM model

Walter Cronkite with a model of the Command and Service Modules during CBS News coverage of the Apollo 11 landing, 1969.

I remember hearing the CAPCOM’s voice, Charlie Duke, in Houston and Neil Armstrong’s voice in the Lunar Module. I thought the astronauts were trained to be very careful about what they said, because they always deliberated a few seconds before answering. I didn’t know it was because of the 1.5-second light speed delay from here to the Moon. The suspense was palpable as the seconds ticked away, but Neil’s voice remained calm. No one listening would have guessed, except the white-knuckled engineers in Houston Mission Control, that they had overshot their intended landing sight, had computer overload problems, had to hop over a crater to find a smooth spot to land, and were down to 15 seconds of fuel remaining when the contact light finally announced they had arrived. Buzz had his hand on the abort switch the whole time.

At 2:17 pm Utah time, the Eagle settled onto the Sea of Tranquility in a cloud of dust. It was hard to see anything through the gritty lens of the television camera on the Eagle, but we all heard the words, “Houston. Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.” We jumped up and down in excitement. Humans were on the Moon! The engineers in Mission Control slapped each other on the back as Flight Director Gene Kranz went around the room to determine stay or no stay: “GUIDO – stay! FiDO – stay! TELMU – stay!” Cronkite wiped a tear from his eye, grinned, and exclaimed, “Wow! Oh boy!” This from a news journalist that flew in a glider with paratroopers during Operation Overlord who remained calm during his announcement of Pres. Kennedy’s assassination.

Walter Cronkite oh boy

Walter Cronkite gets a bit excited upon the landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module at the Sea of Tranquility, July 20, 1969.

The bishop of our LDS congregation had scheduled Sacrament Meeting at an earlier time than usual so that we could get back to our homes to watch the astronauts walk on the Moon. It was a hot afternoon in our chapel, which did not have air conditioning, and we were all stifling. Instead of the usual 90-minute meeting it only lasted one hour. As the closing prayer ended, I ran out of the chapel’s side door and sprinted for home. Our house was across the river from the church, and I remember running across the old white wooden bridge hoping that I hadn’t missed anything too exciting. I slammed open the front door and immediately turned on the old TV. It took a minute or so for the vacuum tubes to warm up and the TV view to expand on, and then I had to fiddle with the horizontal hold knob to keep the screen from scrolling up continuously. As the rest of my family walked in the front door, I was already watching and listening to Walter Cronkite again.

Apollo 11 landing site from Lunar Recon

The Apollo 11 landing site today as seen from the high resolution camera aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. You can make out the foot paths of the astronauts on the surface, including one side trip to a local crater to collect moon rocks.

He reported that the astronauts were taking a mandatory rest break and everything was fine in the Eagle, as Michael Collins orbited above in the Command Module. He confirmed that the moonwalk had been moved up five hours earlier than originally scheduled at the request of Buzz and Neil. This was great news because it meant we would see it happen that evening and not have to wait up until early in the morning Utah time.

At 8:39 pm our time, after taking some time to don their EVA suits, the hatch to the Eagle was opened and Neil Armstrong crawled backwards onto the front porch, then slowly descended the ladder rungs. When he got to the bottom, he jumped down onto the large landing pad and reported back to Houston that the LM was only depressed a few inches into the lunar regolith. We hadn’t really known until the landing how deep the powdery stuff was or how far the LM legs would penetrate. Before stepping off, Neil jumped back up to the lowest rung of the ladder to make sure it could be done, then back down to the pad again.

houston_no_problem-s

David Black sitting in Gene Kranz’s chair in the Apollo era control room at Johnson Space Center. He was the Flight Director during the Apollo 11 mission. This photo was taken in 2004, when I had the chance for a VIP tour of JSC.

This was all hard to see. The TV camera that Neil had pulled out of the side of the LM as he crawled onto the porch was partially obscured by dust from the landing and the ladder was in the stark darkness of the LM’s shadow, so I couldn’t make out much more that a few vague movements. Our old, grainy TV set didn’t help much.

Then we heard the famous words, “Okay, I’m going to step off the LEM now. That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil’s microphone dropped out the “a” before man, but we filled it in inside our own minds anyway. A man was now standing on the Moon!

Buzz soon followed, and in some ways his words are more profound: “Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation!” The view of the first world besides Earth ever walked on by humans was a desolate view; a lifeless view of barren dust and gray craters while the enticing blue marble of Earth hung in the sky, the only source of life known. Yet it was a magnificent view and starkly beautiful.

Gene Kranz at director consol

Gene Kranz sitting at the Flight Director’s console in Mission Control at Johnson Space Center. His wife made him a custom white vest for every mission. The one for the Apollo 11 mission is on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

They planted the flag, collected samples, conducted a few simple science experiments (the ALSEP package wasn’t sent until the next mission), and took photos. They stayed on the lunar surface for about two hours before climbing back up the ladder.

I watched them the whole time with utter absorption. This was the culmination of a space program that I had been hearing about all my life. This was the biggest event I had ever seen in my young life, and had been led into by the Mercury and Gemini missions I had heard so much about in the preceding years. This was shared by 100s of millions of people and became part of our collective consciousness and national pride. This is still a symbol of what humanity can do when it aspires and collaborates on a common goal. This is a moment I hope to see happen again, first with a return to the Moon, then on to Mars. It has helped to shape a great part of my life and career as a science teacher.

After resting in their hammocks that night (although it was still day on the Moon), the astronauts blasted off the surface in the Ascent stage the next day, docked with Mike Collins in the CSM, and headed back to Earth for a splashdown three days later.

This is what Walter Cronkite had to say about the mission in his news editorial after the splashdown:

Apollo ll photo

A man on the Moon.

“Well, man’s dream and a nation’s pledge have now been fulfilled. The lunar age has begun. And with it, mankind’s march outward into that endless sky from this small planet circling an insignificant star in a minor solar system on the fringe of a seemingly infinite universe. The path ahead will be long; it’s going to be arduous; it’s going to be pretty doggone costly. We may hope, but we should not believe, in the excitement of today, that the next trip or the ones to follow are going to be particularly easy. But we have begun with ‘a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind,’ in Armstrong’s unforgettable words.

“In these eight days of the Apollo 11 mission the world was witness to not only the triumph of technology, but to the strength of man’s resolve and the persistence of his imagination. Through all times the moon has endured out there, pale and distant, determining the tides and tugging at the heart, a symbol, a beacon, a goal. Now man has prevailed. He’s landed on the moon, he’s stabbed into its crust; he’s stolen some of its soil to bring back in a tiny treasure ship to perhaps unlock some of its secrets.

“The date’s now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as man survives — July 20, 1969 — the day a man reached and walked on the moon. The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are the best of us, and they’ve led us further and higher than we ever imagined we were likely to go.”

And that’s the way it was, July 20, 1969.

Fifty Years Later

I was a total Space Cadet even before the Apollo 11 landing and continued to follow all of the missions. I was on the edge of my seat during the Apollo 13 crisis and wondered with the rest of the world if the astronauts would make it back safe. I was in the hospital healing from a terrible accident when Apollo 15 landed and drove the Lunar Rover around for the first time, and I followed that mission on TV in detail as I recuperated. I was terribly disappointed when the missions beyond Apollo 17 were cancelled, but excited for the next steps of the Skylab space station and the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1976. But even as a teenager I could see that we had lost our momentum in space exploration and the glory days of Apollo were behind us.

Apollo Soyuz

The Apollo-Soyuz display in the Space Race exhibit of the Air and Space Museum.

Yet I continued to hope. Because of my poor eyesight and the accident that left my right leg shorter and weaker than my left, I knew that I would never by chosen as an astronaut despite my great desire to be one. I studied science in part because I wanted to work for NASA, but there wasn’t any real space science or Earth science taught at my small high school beyond our excellent physics class. I moved toward chemistry and engineering instead.

But I still followed all of the missions of the robotic space probes. I traveled to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a senior in high school on a field trip while exhibiting my methanol-air fuel cell system at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Anaheim. We toured the Von Karman Auditorium and got to learn about the Viking missions two years before and the Voyager missions launched the year before and on their way to Jupiter. A mockup of the Viking lander was on display, and the auditorium was dominated by a mockup of Voyager, which at that time sat right in the middle of the space (now it is on the left side). The scientists at JPL told us about the upcoming Galileo mission that would follow up on Voyager and would go into orbit, not just fly past Jupiter.

Saturn V top view

The Saturn V rocket at Johnson Space Center. The only part that returned was the conical Command Module under the emergency escape tower. It was barely big enough for three people and a crude computer. Now, the Orion capsule will soon be launched which can hold up to five astronauts with much greater comfort on top of the even more powerful Space Launch System. It will take us back to the Moon.

Years went by. I became a science teacher in 1990. I was chosen for the NASA Educator Workshops for Mathematics and Science Teachers (NEWMAST) program in 1998 and spent two weeks at JPL touring the labs, meeting the scientists, and learning about space probe missions. I traveled to Mt. Wilson Observatory and did astrophotography. I applied to return as an Educator Facilitator over four years, and in the meantime returned again to JPL every summer as a NASA/JPL Solar System Educator. I visited Cape Canaveral in 2001 to attend an educators’ conference and see the launch of the 2001 Mars Odyssey probe. We visited the site of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.

In 2002 I was finally chosen as the facilitator for NEWMAST at JPL and its successor, the NASA Explorer Schools program. I returned for three more years to help plan and lead the workshops for 25 other educators each year. JPL became like a second home to me, and the education and public outreach personnel there are friends.

Saturn V business end

The business end of the Saturn V rocket at Johnson Space Center. This rocket would have been Apollo 18 or 19, but the funds were cut by congress. Now the most powerful machine ever built lies rusting on a lawn in Houston. This rocket is kept maintained because it is technically flight rated hardware, but it will never soar as it was meant to.

I took a few years off of active space opportunities to remarry and raise a second family, then returned in force and expanded my efforts from planetary science into astrophysics, flying on SOFIA, participating with my students in the NITARP program to study the universe using Spitzer and WISE infrared data at Caltech, fulfilling a Research Experience for Teachers program in astrophysics at Brigham Young University, studying Mercury using data from the MESSENGER probe, acting as a MAVEN Educator Ambassador at Goddard Space Flight Center, and winning awards as a science educator.

Now I am at the Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and it is fifty years since I saw Neil and Buzz walk on the moon. Today is Saturday, July 20, 2019. I don’t recount all of this to brag – at least not much – but to show how that event half a century ago shaped my life. I have earned the right to be here and to join the celebration.

Air and Space 50th

The party commences to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., July 20, 2019.

The Biggest Party of Them All

I knew we would be at the museum until quite late, so I slept in a little and took it easy all morning, eating a microwaved breakfast I had shopped for at Target and catching up on my blog entries and photo uploads. My summer classes ended on Friday and I did some grading to clear the decks. Most of the TIIs were either helping out with the celebration tonight as I was or they were going to be there, so we were all kicking back a bit. Some had friends or relatives in town and were showing them around D.C.

Rover rollover

The rover rollover challenge.

A few days before leaving Utah for Washington, I read a request for memories of that landing 50 years ago for a Deseret News special report. I submitted a shorter version of the story I wrote above. Today, reading through the electronic version of the paper, I saw the article and was pleasantly surprise that they included a truncated version of my story. Then I read the others. One was from a man who had been a bomber pilot in Vietnam and had flown a bombing run the night of July 20, 1969. He told of listening to the landing on the Armed Forces Radio as they returned through a cloudless sky. Another man was a sailor on the U.S.S. Hornet, which recovered the astronauts after their splashdown and carried the Lunar Receiving Lab, which the three astronauts had to stay in for several weeks before ascertaining that they did not carry any Moon germs. They practiced recovery operations all during the mission, and he got to see the astronauts climb out of the helicopter and enter the lab, then had to keep the ship in perfect order as President Nixon came aboard to personally congratulate the astronauts.

LEGO astro wall

A mural of an astronaut on Mars made entirely of LEGO bricks, part of the celebration on the National Mall.

About 11:00 I got my stuff together and headed for the National Mall via the Metro system as we had been doing all week. I wanted to visit all the tents along the mall and see what the next steps will be, so I got off at the L’ Enfant Plaza and walked to the Mall in the blistering 100 ° F and 80% humidity weather. It was the hottest, muggiest day yet and I was soon sweating buckets and glad to have a water bottle.

JWST Explained

Explaining the James Webb Space Telescope at a booth on the National Mall.

As I was crossing Independence at the corner of the Air and Space building, I ran into another TII teacher, Amy, with her mother who was visiting for the big party. After a photo op, I continued on to the displays and tents along the mall. It was crowded and I longed for the least bit of shade, but it was fun. There were LEGO statues of Neil Armstrong (complete with a reflection of Buzz in his visor), a LEGO mural of an astronaut on Mars, painters painting, puzzles of planets being made, 3D printed models of the Moon, two giant Moon maps (one for each side) and even a part of the old mission control room from Houston. In 2004, I got to visit Johnson Space Center and took a VIP tour with Ota Lutz. She took me to the neutral buoyancy pool and we got to go into the old green control room itself. I sat in Gene Kranz’s chair, and took photos with one of the two remaining Saturn V rockets.

Giant Moon map

A giant moon map on display on the National Mall next to the Air and Space Museum.

One booth had a display from JPL on the upcoming Mars 2020 mission, and a person from NASA HQ showed me how the sample sequestration device will work. They had a rover rollover contest for people to lie still while a test rover with six wheels rolled over them. Another booth talked about the upcoming Space Launch System and the planned Artemis Missions to return us to the Moon. It was all very fun. I had to cool down with treats from an ice cream truck.

Lego astronaut with girl

A LEGO astronaut with Moon Maiden. This is a re-creation of the same photograph posted above, complete with a reflection of Buzz in the visor.

We were to report by about 3:00 at the Air and Space Museum’s south door, where I showed my visiting staff badge. It was still closed until the main party started at 4:17, and would continue until 1:11 corresponding to the time from the landing to the astronauts returning to the LM. Since only a few volunteers and staff were there, it was unusually quiet. I took a few photos including one with Neil Armstrong’s space suit before the lines started. Here I was next to the actual suit he wore as he descended the ladder, and on this day of all days. I might not be an astronaut, but I have worked for and with NASA as an education consultant. I’ve visited six of the ten NASA field centers. And that nine-year old space geek is still inside of me, just thrilled to be here and find a photo op with a piece of history.

Me with Neil suit

David Black with Neil Armstrong’s space suit from the Apollo 11 mission. I was fortunate to have this taken before the crowds were allowed into the museum.

 

We were taken up the staff elevator to the third floor offices, where we were told what we were to do. I was already wearing my NASM Crew T-shirt, which they had given us yesterday during our Focus Group activity. There was quite a group of us, and they would provide pizza, snacks, and drinks for the evening. My job was to help judge and monitor the Goose Chase competitions. There would be three, each lasting one hour, with hundreds of teams already signed up. The participants were to be given a series of questions and challenges involving museum artifacts. They had to find the display, take a photo of themselves by it or a video of themselves doing some activity near it, or answer a question about it. The program scored them automatically, but we were to judge to make sure they were really answering the questions correctly and to award extra points for creative answers and deduct points for non-completion. Each of the ten or so teachers who had volunteered for this was assigned 3-4 questions for each contest.

NASM Crew

Some of the NASM Crew that helped out with the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing at the National Air and Space Museum.

The doors opened and the crowds flocked in. Our first contest was about the Mercury Program and the teams first received instructions at 8:30, then spread out to start answering the challenges in no particular order. Their objective was to answer as many questions as possible and gain the most points in one hour; not all of the questions had to be answered nor was there time to do so. I had an iPod signed in to the contest and I could see the answers as they started to come in, some highly creative, some showing less care. Everyone was having fun, and I had fun with them vicariously as they navigated the crowds. We sent messages to them saying to try again or good work, and it was an intense hour. When we saw a funny response, we shared it amongst ourselves and laughed together.

NASM hallway

On the top floor of the National Air and Space Museum. I was part of the NASM Crew for this 50th anniversary celebration and helped to judge the Goose Chase event. There were many activities going on in the museum, and this way I got to participate and help out.

In the meantime, other TIIs and volunteers were helping at the information desks, herding people into the IMAX theater or managing the long lines to Neil’s spacesuit. Everyone wanted a photo with it, so I was glad I had already taken one. At 9:30 the second contest began about the Gemini program. Each hour a winner was announced and prizes given out downstairs. When we had breaks (for the first few minutes of each game) we walked the halls and got snacks and chatted with the other NASM Crew volunteers.

At the end of the Gemini contest, we all went downstairs to watch the boot drop. They had created a giant balloon statue of Neil Armstrong’s boot and suspended it from the ceiling next to the Spirit of St. Louis. At 10:39, exactly 50 years since Neil first started down the ladder of the Lunar Module, the boot began to drop. At 10:56 precisely it touched the floor, and of course someone yelled out, “That’s one giant step for a balloon, one small step for mankind!”

Big Boot about to drop

A big balloon boot about to drop. It was timed to start descending exactly 50 years to the minute from when Neil Armstrong started to descend the ladder of the Lunar Module and touched down at the same time as his famous boot print on the Moon.

We headed back upstairs and resumed our duties for the final Apollo contest. A few minutes in, I heard a teacher next to me remark about a team titled the Einstein Fellows. I asked to look at her iPod to see photos this team had posted and recognized several of them, including Andi Webb, whom I had gotten to know when I interviewed for the Fellowship in 2018. I wasn’t chosen, but these people had interviewed with me. I had been wondering if I would run into them anywhere during these two weeks in Washington. They are on their last few weeks of the year-long fellowship. When their answers came on my screen, I gave them a shout out.

The contest came to a close about 12:15 as we wrapped up our final tallies. I grabbed my stuff and headed downstairs along with Trevor Macduff, who is in his second year of the TII program. When we got to the information desk by the Star Trek display, I saw Andi there with the others and said hello to them all. Andi remembered me, at least. Come to find out, Trevor knows her as well. She has interned for a congressperson this year and thoroughly enjoyed it, but is not returning to her school in North Carolina as the principal there has changed. She is deciding where to go next.

Where the unicorn lives

For a number of years, NASA’s space probe policy followed the mantra of “Faster, better, cheaper” but this led to several lost space probes, because you can only get two of these at a time – if it is fast and good, it cannot be cheap. If it is fast and cheap , it cannot be good. If it is cheap and good, it cannot be fast. The combination is where the unicorn lives . . . This sign was on the wall on the third floor of the Air and Space Museum.

The winners were a family team that had really gone all out and showed great originality. We congratulated them and called an Uber to head back to the dorms as the Metro isn’t running this late.

It had been an incredible day and my inner Space Cadet was very satisfied. I might not have gotten to meet any Apollo astronauts after all, but I always knew that was unlikely. I got to participate and even help out and felt a part of Apollo, fifty years later.

Vision of future

This display was in one of the booths on the National Mall, and made we wonder what we will see in another 50 years. The last 50 years have been stunning even if we had only a brief time on the Moon. I can only hope that by then, we will have permanent bases on the Moon and Mars and a strong human presence throughout the solar system. The dreams of that nine-year-old boy will never die.

About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, Earth science, physics, biology, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science in Utah. I've won numerous awards as an educator and am a frequent presenter at state and national educator conferences. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador. I learned of the Indonesian education system and taught classes in astronomy and chemistry at a high school near Banjarmasin in southern Borneo. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. This Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project (http://elementsunearthed.com) will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
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