The words of Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden said it all, “The excitement is back.”
The fervor that overtook the world 50 years ago, as 600 million people tuned in to watch the moon landing, made a comeback in Huntsville last week, as the city that turned President John F. Kennedy’s dream into an engineering reality paid homage to the remarkable feat.
Even a power outage that left attendees dining largely in the dark could not dampen the spirit at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center July 16, as the community came together under the Saturn V to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch date of Apollo 11. More than 900 people attended the Apollo 11 Homecoming Celebration Dinner and Program that recognized the Rocket City’s role in putting man on the moon. Long tables reserved for the engineers who made it all happen served as a visual reminder of Huntsville’s contribution to the space race.
“As an engineer myself, it was these individuals that inspired me to never stop pushing the boundaries of innovation,” said Harold Brewer, co-founder and chairman of the board of INTUITIVE Research and Technology, the Apollo 50th Golden Anniversary sponsor. “It was these men and women that put Huntsville on the map, making it a hub for groundbreaking discovery, and it was these men and women that were the catalyst for the next giant leap of mankind. The research and engineering that supported Apollo 11 proved that we are not confined to the limitations of technology, but only the limitations of our imaginations and our curiosities.”
The evening included appearances by Apollo astronauts, a performance of “The von Braun Suite” by the Brass Band of Huntsville, and remarks by Gov. Kay Ivey, U.S. Space & Rocket Center CEO Deborah Barnhart, Marshall Space Flight Center Director Jody Singer, event sponsors, and Margrit von Braun, daughter of Wernher von Braun, the man who was instrumental in the development of the Saturn V.
Memories tied the night together, as speakers and attendees alike shared where they were when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the moon, and how that moment personally impacted them. Ivey spoke of the unrest felt across the country and the world at the time – the country’s race to space with the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, and assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
“All of that seemed like a blur when that incredible moment actually took place. The world literally stopped in awe of this ultimate Kodak moment,” Ivey said.
For Singer, who followed in the steps of the 400,000 people who made Apollo 11 happen, watching as a young girl in her grandmother’s den, “was a life challenging and changing event.”
“Many of us probably didn’t even realize the magnitude of that moment, but it hits you now,” Singer said. “When you think of those pioneering footsteps 50 years ago, which represented the culmination of an immense national effort and the threshold of a new era of exploration for humanity, it is just mind-boggling.”
While the evening was a celebration of the past, it also looked to the next 50 years, as the conversation turned multiple times to NASA’s current efforts to return to the moon, the future of space exploration, and the Rocket City’s role in that. The evening concluded with an appearance by the great-grandchildren of astronaut Alan Shepard, who was the first American in space.
“The legacy of the Apollo is we can do anything we decide to do,” Worden said. “I think we’ve kind of lost that in the last few years, but I think the 50th anniversary will bring us back to the right kind of thinking. I think you’re going to see an acceleration in the space program, if they get the funding through Congress. The 50th anniversary reminds us that we can do the impossible if we put our minds to it.”