45 years later, moon landing still vivid in the minds of many
Published: Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 5:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 5:03 p.m.
Bill Helms remembers exactly where he was the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin launched into space on their way to the moon in 1969.
At the time, Helms, 70, of Old Town, was a 25-year-old engineer on the launch team of Apollo 11 at the Kennedy Space Center. He was working on the Hazardous Gas Detection System console in Firing Room 1 in the large control center, which Helms said was basically "making sure the back end of the rocket didn't explode."
The night before the launch, Helms went out to the launch pad to put the final tweaks on the rocket.
"I remember looking up at the rocket and thinking, ‘Wow, this whole thing is going to move tomorrow morning and end up on the moon,' " he said.
The morning of the launch, the four-inch glass windows vibrated from the force as the rocket lifted from the ground and into a new frontier. Helms and the rest of the crew began shaking hands, slapping each other on the back and getting autographs from each other, he said.
Helms continued to work in engineering, and participated in about 100 launches, including the rest of the Apollo lunar landings, before he retired from NASA after working there for 35 years.
Although he considers his contribution in the first lunar landing small, Helms said it still feels good.
"It still kind of gives me goosebumps, just to be honest with you," he said. "It's was a privilege to be working for the citizens of the world."
On Sunday, July 20, 1969, Helms and people from across the globe sat down in front of their televisions to watch Armstrong and Aldrin take the first steps on the moon.
Sunday, on the 45th anniversary of the mission, the now 84-year-old Aldrin is asking everyone to remember where they were when he and Armstrong made history and share it online, using the hashtag #Apollo45.
John Caravella's Sicilian grandmother never believed that Armstrong and Aldrin had actually landed on the moon.
Caravella, the office manager for the Gainesville branch of Seniors vs. Crime, said it wasn't because she believed that it was fake or staged. It was just so amazingly impossible and literally out of this world that she couldn't believe it, Caravella remembers.
"She would tell us in her broken English, ‘You're kidding me, this can't be true,' and she believed that until her dying day" he said. "It was something so extraordinarily impossible to do in her mind, and for that reason alone it couldn't happen."
Caravella, 60, was 15 years old when he watched the lunar landing happen on his black-and-white television.
"There were so many thoughts going on in my head while I was watching it," he said. "We were already in the Vietnam War, and I remember wondering how could society do something as grand as this, but couldn't get along on this planet."
Sgt. Terry Crews, 52, remembers he had to convince his teacher and principal as an 8-year-old why it was so important for him to go home and watch on TV the Apollo 11 crew's return to Earth.
Crews, who works with the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, said his teacher couldn't understand when he explained the importance of the event, so she sent him to the principal.
"We didn't have DVRs back then, so if you wanted to see something, it had to be live in front of the television," he said. "I told them this was a historic event and that I needed to see it, so they let me out early. The whole thing was a big deal back then."
Ata Sarajedini wasn't in the United States in 1969, but the professor of astronomy and associate dean in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Florida watched the moon landing on his grandparents' television in the Middle East.
Sarajedini, 50, said watching something so historic on TV was an "amazing moment."
"The fact that humans touched foot on another celestial body is quite an accomplishment," he said. "It's also important to remember that it happened just several years after President Kennedy made the challenge to get to the moon. Inventing a space program from scratch is also quite an accomplishment."
The moon landing was one of the things that helped inspire Sarajedini's career in astronomy, he said.
"It showed me humankind can do these amazing kinds of things if we just set our mind to it and devote the resources, funding and will to do it," he said.
Between that day in 1969 and 1972, 12 men explored the moon in six landings. But that first moonwalk, by Armstrong and Aldrin, is what clinched America's place as space leader supreme following a string of crushing losses to the Soviet Union, which claimed title to first satellite, first spaceman, first spacewoman and first spacewalker.
Sunday is the first big anniversary of man's first moon landing without Armstrong, whose "one small step ... one giant leap" immortalized the moment.
Armstrong, long known for his reticence, died in 2012 at age 82.
As Apollo 11's commander, Armstrong was first out the lunar module, Eagle, onto the dusty surface of Tranquility Base. Aldrin followed.
Michael Collins, now 83, the command module pilot who stayed behind in lunar orbit as the gatekeeper, spent decades sidestepping the spotlight. He's making an exception for the 45th anniversary — he plans to take part in a NASA ceremony at Kennedy Space Center on Monday to add Armstrong's name to the historic Operations and Checkout Building.
That leaves Aldrin, 84, as the perennial spokesman for Apollo 11. He will also be at Monday's ceremony.
"I consider myself a global statesman for space," Aldrin says in a YouTube video. "So I spend most of my time traveling the country and the world to remind people what NASA and our space program have accomplished, and what is still in our future at Mars. I feel we need to remind the world about the Apollo missions and that we can still do impossible things.
"The whole world celebrated our moon landing. But we missed the whole thing because we were out of town. So now I invite you to share with me — and the world — your story or your family's story of where you were on July 20th, 1969. Or feel free to tell me how the Apollo missions inspired you."
Aldrin used to keep a little black book to list people's whereabouts on July 20, 1969. Everyone wanted to share that with him.
Now he's using social media and asking people to post a video to YouTube using the hashtag #Apollo45.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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