On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step on the moon. As they touched down on the lunar surface, Armstrong famously delivered words that would echo through the ages: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Fifty years later, on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, celebrations are being held around the world, including in Moorpark, where organizers are hoping to rekindle the awe of the moment.
On Saturday, July 20, the Ventura County Astronomical Society (VCAS) will host an Apollo 11: 50th Anniversary Star Party at the Moorpark College Observatory. The family-friendly event will feature video clips, models and special guests, and will give attendees an opportunity to share their own memories of the successful mission that began on July 16, 1969, and ended when the astronauts returned safely to earth on July 24.
Keith Salvas, chair of publicity for VCAS, was 8 years old when Walter Cronkite broadcast into his living room, televising the lunar landing. Salvas says his excitement was mostly that of the adults in the room, too young to understand the significance of the event. Now, Salvas says he understands why they were excited.
“My first memory of America doing something extremely significant was the lunar landing,” said Salvas. “It started out as a competition with the Soviet Union. We wanted to make sure space, our next frontier, was a peaceful place to go, not a militarized zone.”
The VCAS’ annual open house coincides with the Apollo 11 anniversary, which Salvas says offers a great opportunity to answer the question at the core of stargazing, “What’s the point of looking?”
When then-President John F. Kennedy announced on Sept. 12, 1962, that the United States would go to the moon, Jerell Thomas was 25 years old, a student at Georgia Tech. After graduation, he joined the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration under German-American Wernher von Braun, pioneer of rocket technology. Thomas became the chief of the Strength Analysis Branch for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, where he worked on the rockets used for the Apollo mission.
“Our job in Huntsville was to develop a launch system which consisted of the first three rocket stages: S-IC stage, and then S-II stage, and the S-IVB stage,” said Thomas, now retired and a resident of Simi Valley. “Compared to the army missiles, the size of the Saturn Apollo launch stages was enormous. Approximately five times as big, maybe more.”
Thomas, who was 33 when the Apollo 11 successfully completed its mission, says that he remembers being “very proud to have been part” of it as he watched the live broadcast from his home.
“We were doing stress analysis, calculations to prove how strong everything was and to make changes to make sure everything was strong enough, and we didn’t have computers, we were doing it with slide rules,” said Thomas.
At the anniversary celebration, Thomas will have a scale engineering drawing of the Apollo assembly and a color illustration to display, adding that he will be more than happy to answer questions about his time working on the project.
Gloria DeMuri was not quite a teenager when the moon landing occurred, but she was close to the project through her father, Ronald DeMuri, who was an aeronautical engineer at Rocketdyne, the former testing facility located in Simi Valley. DeMuri worked on the Saturn V booster rockets, which propelled the Apollo 11 into orbit before disengaging and falling into the Pacific Ocean.
“You don’t realize you’re in the middle of a movement during the movement,” said DeMuri, who will attend the VCAS party, bringing with her items from her dad’s collection. “Now that it’s been 50 years, I can understand how my dad was always working, always curious and always reading books, educated himself to make it a success, not only him as an aeronautical engineer but all of those men.”
Hal Jandorf, adjunct astronomy professor at Moorpark College and Los Angeles Valley College, says that the Apollo mission inspired him to teach astronomy following a 40-year career as an engineer. After he graduated from college in the 1970s, Jandorf took his interest to NASA where he helped to design the Space Shuttle, NASA’s follow-up to the Apollo missions.
Jandorf has now been a professor for 35 years and has hosted the VCAS’ Star Parties every summer, since Moorpark College’s observatory was opened in 1989.
“It is kind of hard to describe it. It’s an incredible achievement,” said Jandorf on the Apollo 11 mission. “Probably the greatest, at least I think, the greatest achievement humans have done. They changed humanity itself.”
Prior to Apollo 11, 10 earlier missions resulted in developing the technology that made the moon landing possible and testing whether or not humans could survive in a long-haul journey through space. There was tragedy as well.
Apollo 1 was set to become the first low Earth orbital test for the command module, set to launch on Feb. 21, 1967. Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee were the first Apollo astronauts. One month prior to launch date, on Jan. 27, a fire in the cockpit killed all three men during a launch simulation.
Jandorf says he was practicing with his band when news of the accident came over the radio. Now, he uses it to remind his students of the enormous effort it took to get humans to the moon.
“I always tell my students how many astronauts actually walked on the moon: 12. There were six missions that were successful and 12 people walked on it,” said Jandorf.
Thomas says that he hopes people in attendance at the anniversary celebration will feel a sense of patriotism with regards to what Americans can do and have done in the name of science and technology.
“It’s one of the greatest lessons we have about what mankind can do if we just put our minds to it,” said Thomas. “The Apollo system and the moon landing still might be the greatest technical accomplishment humanity has ever achieved.”
Salvas says that there will be telescopes set up for viewing celestial objects such as Saturn and the Milky Way but, ironically, the moon will not be visible on the night of the anniversary. Attendees, however, will have the opportunity to share their own memories of the Apollo 11 mission and to explain why the mission was important to them.
“That was the most important thing about the Apollo 11 mission — everyone in America, if they didn’t have a hand in working on it, they were involved emotionally,” said Salvas. “I want to be bring that back 50 years later.”
The Ventura County Astronomical Society’s Apollo 11: 50th Anniversary Star Party will take place on Saturday, July 20, 8-11 p.m. at the Moorpark College Observatory, 7075 Campus Road, Moorpark. For more information, visit www.vcas.org.