Monday, July 21, 2014

July 20 - Then and Now

July 20th marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Although sometimes I wish I wasn’t getting old, I’m glad I was old enough to experience that epic moment. Born not long after Sputnik, my childhood coincided with the U.S. space program in the 1960s. By the time the Apollo program began, I was building and launching my own model rockets. I devoured as much coverage as possible for each mission.

I remember that July 20, 1969, came while family members were visiting for vacation. During the day, we were at my great-aunt’s cottage located at Lake Washington outside of Parkersburg, WV. One of our favorite activities was swimming at the beach on the lake, but some of us gathered around a transistor radio to listen to the news coverage that afternoon of the Lunar Excursion Module’s landing on the moon.

Later that evening, our extended family gathered at my aunt and uncle’s home in Lubeck, to watch the coverage of man’s first steps on the moon. One reason why we watched it there was because they had a large console color television, which was still a novelty to most of us at that time. Granted, the astronauts only had black and white television cameras for their shots from the moon’s surface, but at least the news commentators in the network studio were in color.

It was quite an eventful night for a youngster—one that I will long remember, made better by the fact that it was shared with lots of my relatives. As it turned out, my early interest in spaceflight helped me to get a job at NASA Headquarters when I graduated from WVU. That 1985/’86/’87 stint I worked for NASA before returning to West Virginia enabled me to join the NASA Alumni League. This membership led to another significant event in my life which occurred exactly 20 years ago.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing, a fancy black tie dinner was held on July 20, 1994, in Washington, DC. Many astronauts would be there, as well as celebrities such as newsman Hugh Downs, astronomer Carl Sagan, etc. Vice-President Al Gore was to be the keynote speaker. I received an invitation to attend and decided to go. At that time, I was a member of the Wood County Board of Education, and the local press picked up on the story. I still have the yellowed newspaper clipping (showing me with no gray hair and no receding hairline) hanging on the side of my refrigerator, because it was one of the highlights of my life.

As if that date was not already special enough, the pieces of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 (which had only recently been discovered) were crashing into Jupiter while we watched. This was a giant comet that had been “captured” by Jupiter, and then broke apart into a “freight train” of 21 pieces, all of which followed a similar line before slamming into Jupiter over the course of a few days, including July 20. Many of these fragments left huge impact spots when they exploded into the Jovian atmosphere. It was the first time humans had ever watched collisions in space. Plus, this “space spectacular” was occurring just as we were celebrating our own biggest achievement in space—it was almost as if the universe was supplying its own “fireworks” to commemorate Apollo 11.

I remember that a separate room had been set up at the hotel that night for a press conference with Carl Sagan along with astronomers Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker plus David Levy, who had discovered this previously undetected comet and were also in attendance. It was quite a thrill for me to watch these astronomers interact with the press about this major celestial event after the dinner.

For most folks, Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 has been forgotten, and July 20 simply means Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. While that still means a lot to me, I have the added memory of a gala 25th anniversary celebration in a fancy Washington hotel, full of my childhood hero astronauts and other dignitaries, culminating in a press conference featuring another hero of mine—Carl Sagan—explaining the significance of watching a completely different “landing” on another surface within our solar system. Indeed, July 20, 1969, as well as July 20, 1994, are both great memories for me.

Now if only I still looked the same as my picture on that old yellowed newspaper clipping!

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