Everybody’s got a story.
It was the family vacation Tommy Battle will never forget. While his father had spent his hard-earned money to take his family to the beach at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on July 20, 1969 the Battle family was cooped up in their hotel room, watching Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon.
For the adolescent, while it was “pretty neat” to see it on the little black and white TV, it was kind of like watching another episode of “My Favorite Martian.”
Today, as mayor of the Rocket City, he realizes the gravity of the moment.
“It started sinking in years later the accomplishment that it was – how to get a man all the way to the moon and back,” Battle said. “We engineered our way through many, many challenges to take us to a place, as they said, where no man’s ever been.”
For Deborah Barnhart, it was a date with destiny. Sitting on the couch with her boyfriend at the time, after watching that one giant leap for mankind, he turned to her and told her he loved her for the first time. Years later she would not only marry that boy – albeit he’s her ex now – but she would become the CEO and executive director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
“It was a big deal,” Barnhart said.
Having moved from Oklahoma to Huntsville so her father could take a job at Marshall Space Flight Center when she was a child, Barnhart knew exactly how monumental the moon landing was.
“It was the Rocket City. I think we were all very conscious of what it was. Those of us who grew up here, afterschool every day you’d go home and the windows would rattle. You could literally feel it all over town. There’s nothing to compare it to today. The thunder never leaves you,” Barnhart said.
A year ago July 16, Barnhart and Battle came together under the Saturn V at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center to announce Huntsville’s plans for commemorating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Various committees were formed, such as arts, spiritual, history and education, so that each niche in the community could plan events that mean something to them. Whether it has been the decorated rockets on parade, the “To The Moon: Snoopy Soars with NASA” exhibit at the Huntsville Public Library, “Tribute to Space” at Concert in the Park, or the events planned for July 13-20 at the Space & Rocket Center, the Tennessee Valley community’s response has been heartwarming for Barnhart.
And make no doubt about it, the celebration largely focuses on the integral role played by Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s a history Huntsvillians want the world to know.
“We feel like it’s important to draw the world’s attention to the Rocket City, to those people who did this,” Barnhart said. “It was a damn hard thing to do, and nobody’s done it in 50 years. Not to be discounting what they’ve accomplished. We’re seeing today the difficulty of doing it again. It’s not just a simple, ‘Let’s pull this out, shake it off and do it again.’ It’s a substantial challenge. I want people to know this is where it happened.”
Not only where it happened, but also where it is happening today. Marshall Space Flight Center employees play a crucial role in the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, which will take astronauts back to the moon and one day to Mars.
“It’s our heritage. It’s our future,” Barnhart said.
“This is where we wrote the pages of history years ago,” Battle said. “We want to celebrate the pages of history that we’ve already written, but as we celebrate, we’re building interest towards writing new pages of history for the future. We have a great storied past, but that storied past is nothing compared to what we’re going to see in the future. We need to all combine together to make sure that future is the best it can be.”