A doctor, a computer programmer, a science teacher and a career paper industry worker. Despite their different backgrounds, they are all fascinated by the cosmos and space exploration. They carried that interest into adulthood and all became members of the Friends of Galileo, the Longview-based astronomy club.
What better group, we thought, to speak about their memories of the day that humans first stepped on another world and share their views about the significance of that event and the future of space travel?
So TDN reporters Rose Lundy, Mallory Gruben, Alex Bruell and Katie Fairbanks interviewed four club members for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Here’s what they had to say.
Still a space buff, at a ripe age
Greg Smith was 19 when he watched astronaut Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon. But Smith already had been a space enthusiast, having watched Walter Cronkite’s CBS News broadcasts on earlier space missions and clipped articles out of newspapers.
“I had followed all the spacecrafts from early Mercury to Gemini and then of course Apollo,” Smith said last week. “I built models of the spaceships. Even now, my daughter, who is in her 30s, got me the Lego version of the Saturn V rocket. This year, I haven’t had time to build it, but she gave me the lunar lander in Legos.”
Space exploration embodied “man’s quest for the unknown,” he said. The lunar landing was the culmination of achievements by Renaissance mathematicians such as Copernicus, Newton and Galileo, said Smith, a retired computer programmer.
The event also brought the nation and world together during a time of upheaval related to race riots and other divisions, Smith said.
“The moon landing brought everybody to a standstill to watch one thing and be amazed by one event that drew virtually everybody together at that point,” said Smith, now 69.
Smith said he wished the United States had continued to push space exploration, but the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement sapped political attention away. If exploration had continued, “we’d be on Mars already. ... But who knows? We didn’t think we’d make it to the moon in 10 years.”
He plans to celebrate the upcoming July 20 anniversary. “I’ll have my Lego Moon Lander all built and ready to go.”
— Rose Lundy
MM science teacher: Lunar mission sparked pride
Steve Powell was straining his eyes to watch the grainy footage of Neil Armstrong’s steps on his family’s small, black-and-white TV. It was “exciting, amazing, a little bit surreal” for Powell, then a 10-year-old who watched the Apollo 11 flight from launch to splash-down back on Earth.
“In the context of that era, of course, we’d been in a race (to get to the Moon) with the Soviet Union,” Powell said. “There was some patriotic pride. … But in the bigger context, I think it represents for the whole human race a sign that we’re not going to be confined to this planet forever. Long-term, we have other places to explore. A new frontier.”
Powell, a 35-year science teacher at Mark Morris High School, said his mom used to wake the family up early to watch the Mercury spaceflights, which put the United States’ first astronauts into Earth orbit. Those mornings helped spark his interest in science and astronomy.
Americans back then probably expected that the U.S. would have accomplished more in manned space exploration by now, Powell said. He referenced the 1968 science fiction epic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which envisioned a turn-of-the-century United States with moon bases, massive space stations and flights to Jupiter.
Actual progress has been far more modest, but Powell said he remains optimistic. He hopes humans will walk on Mars in his lifetime, even though he is 60 years old now.
“We’re living in the most exciting era in the history of the human race when it comes to astronomy and space sciences,” Powell said. “We should be really blessed.”
He cited NASA’s plans to further explore the moon and Mars as well as the Dragonfly mission that aims to land a robot on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, by 2034. Titan is one of a handful of moons in the solar system that tantalizes scientists with an active atmosphere and climate, liquid lakes, and the organic chemicals necessary for life as we know it.
Which all raises the question: Does he think there could be intelligent life beyond Earth?
“Nothing would surprise me,” Powell said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we are entirely alone in the galaxy or if that galaxy’s entirely teeming with life. I think we’ll have a pretty good idea by the end of the century whether’s there’s intelligent life in our area of the galaxy … by listening for signals as well as for looking for exoplanets in our neck of the woods here.”
However, given the huge distances involved, “it might be kind of hard to have a conversation with them.”
— Alex Bruell
‘Very impressive and sort of overwhelming’
Fourth-grade lessons about the rotation of the Earth around the sun perked Bill Norvell’s lifelong interest in the cosmos.
However, his education led to a career in the pulp and paper industry, rather than space exploration. Norvell said he watched the lunar landing on a motel television in Green Bay, Wis., when in town for a job interview.
“It was sort of chilling to see this first step onto the moon. It was very impressive and sort of overwhelming,” said Norvell, now 87. “I think we kind of impressed the entire world. Space was indeed not something to be afraid of but something to take on exploration of.”
The engineering and science involved to make it to the moon was “staggering,” Norvell said. Getting there was not a cheap endeavor, and it had a human cost, he said, noting the fiery deaths of Apollo astronauts Roger Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Ed White II on Jan. 27, 1967, in addition to the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedies.
“All of us have admiration for the men and women who put their lives on the line to push back the frontiers of space,” he said. “They’re national heroes and deserve all the respect we can give them, as well as their families.”
Norvell said the country’s next step into space might be a return to the moon as a stepping stone to exploring Mars. Getting a crew to and from the Red Planet is overwhelming because it’s such a long trip, he said.
“You would have to team up with someone you really liked,” Norvell said.
He’s hopes the infusion of private capital into space exploration will lead to a fruitful endeavor.
“I think the exploration of space is quite important to our understanding of our life here on earth,” he said.
— Katie Fairbanks
Lunar landing marked ‘great age of discovery’
Mark Thorson vividly remembers two experiences from the 1969 lunar landing.
The first, of course, involves watching Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon.
Thorson said he almost missed the moment, as he and a college friend were hiking in Yosemite National Park. But with 117-degree weather, the duo sought refuge and cooler temperatures on the coast of Monterey Bay, Calif.
“When we got off the mountain, I heard on the radio they were getting ready to land,” said Thorson, who had followed America’s progress in space exploration since 1961. “We said, ‘Not only do we have to find a cooler place to be, but also we have to find a place that has a television.’ ”
Thorson, then 21, and his friend watched the lunar landing from a California pub, he said.
His second memory dates about six months before man touched the moon’s surface.
“I remember Christmas Eve of 1968 when Frank Borman and Apollo 8 went around the moon,” he said. “It was a dry run. They didn’t do a landing, but they did orbit the moon. … It was a very moving experience to think that man was actually out there.”
Those two events, among several other significant milestones in space exploration, mark “this great age of discovery that we have lived through … and continue to live through,” said Thorson, a retired Longview doctor.
“Our whole civilization pitched together, and it was a noble and very expensive undertaking that turned out to spin off a lot of wonderful things, including computer technology (and) the use of a transistor … not to mention our knowledge of how to target things in space and maneuver them predictably.”
Space exploration has also lent itself to forward progress in weather satellites, natural disaster predictions, robotics and countless other international projects, Thorson added.
“That’s really the true meaning of the celebration (of the lunar landing). It’s partly the spirit of discovery that humans inherently possess — the desire to see what’s over the next horizon. But it’s also our commitment to work together for an honorable and noble cause.”
Thorson said he is satisfied with the America’s continued progress with space travel, despite some slowing due to budget restraints and the country’s need to “appropriate its resources for a lot of different things.”
Discovery, after all, doesn’t have to be limited just to the cosmos, he said.
“This great age of discovery also includes molecular biology and medicine,” Thorson said. “It’s not just space. But this is a wonderful time to live and to experience and learn about the amazing universe we live in.”
— Mallory Gruben