It seems the whole country is preparing to relive an event that happened 50 years ago — the first manned mission to the moon.
I have a personal connection with the Apollo 11 flight thanks to a project I completed in the eighth grade.
I wrote a report about NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, where the rocket engines used in the Apollo flights were developed. More on that connection in a minute.
You may, or may not, know that Marshall is NASA's largest center. And that its first mission was designing, building and testing the Saturn V rocket that lifted its precious cargo en route to the moon.
After blasting off on top of the massive Saturn V rocket, orbiting both the earth and moon, Apollo 11's official lunar touchdown was recorded at 3:17 p.m. CDT on July 20, 1969. If you were alive 50 years ago, do you remember what you were doing on that momentous day in history?
I was in college and working as the master control operator at WTVY TV in Dothan. I remember that many staff members visited the station that afternoon. I remember being glued to the network monitors watching the feed from the CBS Network as Commander Neil Armstrong flew the lunar module in the final seconds before landing it in the Sea of Tranquility.
Armstrong became the first human being to walk on the surface of the moon as of 9:56 p.m. CDT that Sunday night. And even though he was alone on the moon, an estimated 600,000,000 (600 million) people watched and heard him say "one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind" on television.
Lunar Command Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin was the second man on the moon, joining Armstrong 19 minutes later. Command Module Pilot Michael Collins continued to orbit the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the moon's surface.
The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled a challenge by then President John Kennedy. The president, well aware of the Soviet Union's early lead in the space race, told Congress on May 25, 1961 that he "believed that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." The president went on to say "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
A major part of that "difficult and expensive" project was given to the men and women who worked at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville. Under the direction of Dr. Wernher Von Braun and his cast of German rocket scientists and others at Marshall, NASA eventually created the Saturn V rocket, which would be used to safely power the Apollo program.
Now back to my humble connection to Marshall.
I had followed the space race through the Soviet Union's Sputnik program in the late 1950s. Even as a kid in grade school I realized what a competitive situation our country was in.
So, in 1962. when I met family friend Mack Herring, who worked in the public information department at Marshall, I had a source for all of the PR news releases from NASA regarding activities the Apollo program — especially the Saturn V rocket developed at Marshall.
So, it seemed only logical that when it came to a school project for me in the eighth grade, the Marshall Space Flight Center was a no-brainer. With help from Mack and a true love for the space program, I thoroughly enjoyed putting the notebook together.
Then it got better.
In addition to a great grade on the notebook, Mack Herring thought enough of it to send it to Dr. von Braun himself! I couldn't have been happier knowing that such a great man would take time to look over MY project.
And wait — it got even better. About mid July, 1962, a letter came to me. Its return address was the Director, George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama. I was ecstatic.
The letter read:
Mr. Bob Howell
c/o Dr. R.E. Howell
I have just finished looking over your book on the Marshall Center and the space program. I noticed that your teacher had appropriately graded it "A+." There is not much I can add to that.
I am always proud to see the interest our young people have in science — especially in the space program.
I urge you to keep this interest, and study the sciences and mathematics. I had such an interest when I was your age and I can assure you that you will never regret the efforts you put into it.
Keep up the good work,
Wernher Von Braun
And that's why the 20th of July 2019 will mean a little extra to me, thanks to a great man of science taking time to write to me seven years before one of his rockets made history!