Cass County residents reflect on the moon landing

The Apollo 11 space vehicle lifts off on July 16, 1969, carrying commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins on their historic trip to the moon. NASA photo

Scott Johnson recalls that everyone was gathered into his elementary school auditorium in Ames, Iowa for the Apollo 11 moon landing.

He’s couldn’t swear whether it was live or a recording, saying “it’s hard to actually tell if you remember it or if those memories were planted later,” but 50 years later he recalls the feeling around him as a 7-year-old.

“I was a very young man, but I remember it being a really big deal,” the former science and astronomy teacher said. “I just remember it being really exciting and everybody was really blown away by it. It was a feeling of triumph.”

Despite the excitement, it didn’t have the feeling of a party as people watched it together 50 years ago.

“It was pretty quiet. People were into it,” Johnson said.

Although the landing isn’t what inspired him to become a science teacher, “it did get a lot of people excited about engineering and rocketry,” he said. “It was a cultural phenomenon.”

Before Apollo 11, there’d been risks and rocket explosions and incidents where people died.

“Think about what it took to do it — the technical abilities at the time,” he said. Within 30 years, the average car would have more computer power than the lunar lander.

There was a lot of dedication from a lot of people to make it work, and it showed that if there’s a national priority, we have no limits, Johnson said.

The space race with the Soviet Union was kicked into high gear when the Russian space agency put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit on Oct. 4, 1957. Less than five years later, President John F. Kennedy boldly challenged NASA to “go to the moon in this decade” at a speech in Houston, Texas. They did it with a little more than five months to spare.

Johnson also recalled Kennedy’s speech, saying “I remember serious national pride. We were going to show what we could do.”

Barb Sartman of Twelve Mile remembered seeing images of the first man on the moon as an emotional moment — “[It was] so exciting I remember we cried,” she said.

People had been talking about Apollo 11 since the launch, so the excitement had been building up for a week. Her family sat in front of their black-and-white television to see it.

“I don’t think anyone had color TV. It was those big box ones,” Sartman said. “Dad was working, and he came home and we told him about it.”

Then the television stations showed the recording of it over and over.

For Charles Grable, the moon landing was one reason he went into teaching science at the elementary level before he became superintendent of Pioneer Regional School Corporation.

He, too, sat in front of the television as a kid and also remembers putting together models of spacecraft later.

“I think it rallied the country — it gave them something to rally around,” Gable said. “The leaps in technology that followed were incredible.”

Sharon Case of Walton watched the landing in science class in summer school. About eight students were around the television, and the science teacher was very enthused.

“He wanted us to experience most of what he was experiencing,” Case said. “He was a wonderful science teacher. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and he knew what was happening.”

Case believes it changed society, as so many events did in ‘60s.

“It wasn’t long after that that I ended up at Woodstock,” she said.

Dick Case, her husband, said that if the United States hadn’t accomplished the moon landing, we wouldn’t have the assets in space that we take for granted today like satellites.

Although Logansport High School astronomy teacher Cory Cripe was too young to recall the moon landing, he has a copy of the original South Bend Tribune from the day after the landing.

The red headline reads, “They Made It!”

The front page is almost entirely made up of articles related to the lunar landing, from Russian overtures to work with the United States in peace in space to an Israeli army’s chief chaplain talking about changing a Jewish prayer that had said “just as the moon is untouchable by man.”

His students also watch documentaries on Apollo 11 and the Challenger spacecraft — which exploded killing all seven astronauts on board shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986 — and films like “Hidden Figures.”

Space still inspires and fascinates his students, and they ask amazing questions, Cripe said. One of his former students has gone on to major in space-related studies at Valparaiso University, he added.

Kelly Kollmar, the earth and space science teacher at Pioneer, also wasn’t born until after the landing. However, she has heard from friends who’d seen it and is fascinated by space.

She finds her high school students are also still curious about the Apollo program.

“When we talk about the moon landing, they are often surprised to discover that the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was not the only time humans have walked on the moon and are fascinated when they learn that there have been a total of six human landings on the moon,” Kollmar said.

Her students like to learn about the trouble astronauts had — like how Apollo 13 crew members had to use duct tape to fashion an adapter for a broken CO2 filter.

“They seem to love learning about the context behind the line ‘The Eagle has landed’ and how the famous Neil Armstrong quote, ‘That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,’ is actually preceded by him saying ‘I’m going to step off of the LEM now.’ Of course, this prompts more questions, which I love to answer or help them find the answers to,” she said.

In her astronomy course to upperclassmen, they study space exploration after the Apollo missions, including the Voyager 1 probe and the Mars rovers.

“By opening up our solar system and universe to the students’ curiosity, I hope to inspire future scientists and discoverers into useful and rewarding jobs in science,” Kollmar said.

Reach James D. Wolf Jr. at james.wolf@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5117.

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