St. Louisans’ contributions to moon landing celebrated as anniversary nears

FOREST PARK – Just over half a century after the Wright Brothers made history flying the world’s first airplane a few hundred feet, America launched men a quarter million miles through outer space to walk on the moon. Now, another half century later, St. Louis and the world are about to celebrate the anniversary of that historic moon walk.

“All across the country, there are going to be lots of different celebrations,” said Will Snyder, the new manager of the James S. McDonnell Planetarium in Forest Park. “We’re lucky here at the Science Center to have a huge party to celebrate that 50th anniversary.”

“We have great connections to the space program,” he added. “Apollo 11 and the whole moon program wouldn’t have happened without Mercury, Gemini and a lot of contributions from people in St. Louis.” 

Two of the space capsules, the actual Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, are on display at the entrance to the Planetarium, and Snyder himself has an interesting link: He was born in a Pennsylvania town called Apollo. He comes to St. Louis with a degree in physics and astrophysics, having managed two other planetariums in North Carolina.

As part of this Saturday’s celebrations, the Planetarium will be hosting a free, day-long party, inside and outside, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with commemorative take-home items and various games and activities. Events will include rocketry competitions and a chance to meet and talk with some of the original members of the recovery team from multiple Apollo missions, including Apollo 11.

“The main event is coming up in the afternoon at 3:17,” Snyder noted. “We’ve got a countdown to exactly 50 years ago when Neil Armstrong [landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle] on the Moon. Then, at 4:00, we’re going to have some of the team from McDonnell Douglas Aircraft who actually helped to build the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft talking about their experiences.”

In recent years, the true diversity of the vast team that put men on the moon has come to light. The popular movie “Hidden Figures” documented the African American women mathematicians employed by NASA who played critical roles in the space race.

“It’s not just the three astronauts who went to the moon,” Snyder said. “It’s the over 400,000 people back here on Earth that made that possible. Men and women both, of all backgrounds, and all sorts of computations to safely get these people to the moon and back.” 

The lunar module itself was little more than an aluminum frame with foil wrapping, and the onboard computers had far less power than today’s average smartphone. And that historic first touchdown on another world was hardly a sure thing. In fact, it was nearly a disaster. 

With less than 60 seconds of fuel to spare, Armstrong discovered that the designated landing site was a boulder field instead of a smooth plain. Taking over from the lunar module’s computer with manual controls, Armstrong whizzed low over peaks and ridges, finally spotting a clear area in the distance suitable for landing. 

In the historic audio recordings of the last moments before touchdown, a voice from mission control interrupts Armstrong repeatedly with terse reminders of how few seconds are left. Had Armstrong exceeded that limit, the lunar module would not have had enough fuel to return to the Columbia, its mother capsule. Run out of gas on the moon, and you’re stuck forever.

While the Planetarium prepares for Apollo 11 festivities, it is putting final touches on a new exhibit, “A New Moon Rises,” from the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibit features detailed imagery of lunar landscapes taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2009. Visitors walk through it via the long hallway from Forest Park to the skywalk in a glowing tunnel that looks like a set from a Star Trek spacecraft.

New to St. Louis, Snyder is excited that the Planetarium, unlike many others in the United States, offers free admission throughout the first floor. He notes that upstairs, for just $6, visitors can enjoy star shows in the dome, the second largest in the Western Hemisphere. Snyder says that the actual star projector is one of the best in the world, with only three others like it in the United States.

“It’s not just about looking back, it’s about looking forward, too – you know, what is the next great step for all of humankind?” Snyder said. “It’s my hope that in our lifetimes we’ll get to not only see people return to the moon and have our first woman on the moon, but make it to Mars, too.”

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