Celebrating Apollo 11 in Pasadena

Written for the Pasadena Weekly

In July, you’ll have many opportunities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. NASA already has STEM program lessons online, some featuring that intrepid beagle Snoopy who has a long association with NASA. Online and on TV, PBS will begin it’s Summer of Space with new documentaries premiering as well as space-related encores. Two special screenings and celebrations will also help commemorate that one giant leap for mankind. As the NASA logo suggests, all are looking toward the Next Giant Leap.

From July 5 to August 11, the Rose Bowl will have a new immersive 360 adventure ($25-$55) which will feature an original story performed by 20-cast ensemble in a lunar dome with 40,000 square feet of video projections that takes you from the enormous Saturn V rocket launch and on to the moon. (For more information, go to RoseBowlStadium.com.) This “Apollo 11” features life-sized rockets and expects to perform in 18 cities across the US for the next three years.

Beginning on July 8 (Monday), PBS American Experience’s three-part series,  “Chasing the Moon” airs, answering some questions about being an astronaut as well as looking at diversity and sexism during the days of the Apollo mission while reminding us of the political backdrop.  Part One, “A Place Beyond the Sky,” begins with CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite (1916 –  2009) as journalists describe how they attempted to bring what was essentially a “radio story” of disembodied voices and no visuals, to the American public. The race to beat the Russians to the moon started under President John F. Kennedy, but Apollo 11 reached the moon under President Richard M. Nixon. This episode touches on NASA and Nazis, 19 polar bears fornicating and astronaut groupies. Use your judgment if you let your kiddies watch.

Part Two (July 9), “Earthrise,” reveals a not-so-hidden figure, Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, and the tale of the first African American astronaut candidate, Ed Dwight. To get the public behind the race to the moon, astronauts were used for public relations.  Although it took 20 years before an African American would make it into space, Dwight, now a sculptor, raised the hopes of people around the world. At 25, Northcutt, was not an astronaut, but she still gained fame as the first woman in NASA’s flight control room.

In a recent telephone interview, she recalled “What I remember most about Apollo 11 is that it was so very normal. When you’re simulating and planning for missions, you’re dealing with things that have gone wrong. The most surprising thing about 11 was almost everything was going right.” As a contractor with TRW, Northcutt said, “All women at the time were swimming in the sea of sexism” and while it still exists, it’s “not as murky as it was then.”

Being the only woman was an advantage, Northcutt admitted, “I got a lot of attention at the time and even more attention now, fifty years later.” One of the opportunities then was a trip to London where she remembers a photographer “laying on the ground, almost shooting up my skirt,” but there were also “fantastic members of the press, including in Britain.”

Recently, Northcutt got a call from the Brazilian consulate in Houston where she still lives even though she left TRW in 1984 to become an attorney and a civil rights advocate. During the Apollo missions, a little girl in Brazil was inspired by Northcutt and eventually grew up to become Dr. Rosaly M.C. Lopes,  a senior research scientist at JPL and the editor-in-chief for the planetary science journal, “Icarus.”

As a pre-teen in Rio de Janeiro, Lopes recalled, “I grew up crazy about the Apollo program. Being Brazilian and a girl with terrible eyesight, I was not going to make it as an astronaut. Every time I saw anything about the Apollo program, it was all men.” But Northcutt had helped to calculate the trajectory of the problem plagued Apollo 13 mission. Lopes clipped “small articles about her in two Brazilian newspaper and I became so inspired.” Although those article have long been lost, and Lopes remembers them as being sexist, Lopes searched for Northcutt over the years because Northcutt was like a “beacon.” A casual conversation with a writer brought the two into contact and Northcutt will be meet with Lopes this month at JPL.

Northcutt noted one of the reasons she left TRW was budget cuts. The race to the moon was won, but society had changed. Part Three of “Chasing the Moon,” “Magnificent Desolation,” takes its title from Buzz Aldrin as both his description of the lunar surface and the title of his second autobiography. Post Apollo 11, the astronauts were no longer heroes. During his public relations tours, Frank Borman (Apollo 8 and Gemini 7) recalled going to Cornell campus was “like going into an enemy camp.” Protests against Vietnam labeled Nixon a war criminal, but there were also some questionable figures working at NASA such as ex-SS officer Wernher von Braun.

While most of the action for Apollo 11 was away from the Pasadena area, JPL did have a role leading up to the Apollo program. JPL developed two robotic series of spacecrafts: the Rangers and the Surveyors. The Rangers were like the safety crash test part of the moon landing program. The Rangers were meant to intentionally collide into the moon and provide images of the surface and the approaching impact. Ranger 7 was the first to work properly, hitting the moon on July 31, 1964. Two more would reach the moon.

The seven robotic Surveyors were “soft landers” and the first vehicles to operate on the moon. They provided information about the strength and composition of the lunar surface (1966-1968). Apollo 12 astronauts brought back Surveyor 3’s camera in 1969. The information from these two spacecraft series, helped the Eagle land. Once the Eagle that landed on the moon returned to Earth, Caltech raced to analyze the lunar samples and answer questions about the moon’s composition for scientists and researchers around the world.

JPL and Caltech will be hosting special two free panels. JPL documentarian Blaine Baggett will speak  Ranger and Surveyor missions, former JPL Chief Scientist Arden Albee will talk about lunar samples and former JPL Chief Engineer John Casani will talk about JPL and Caltech’s role in supporting the lunar landing. Moderated by JPL Science Communications Specialist Preston Dyches, the free 90-minute lectures, “Moon Struck! Celebrating Apollo’s 50th Anniversary,” are on Thursday, July 11 (7 p.m.) at The von Kármán Auditorium at JPL (4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena) and on Friday, July 12 (7 p.m.) at Caltech’s Ramo Auditorium (1200 E California Blvd. Pasadena) and require no reservations or tickets.

On Monday, July 15, the California Science Center will open a special giant-screen edition of Todd Douglas Miller’s “Apollo 11″ documentary on the immersive 7-story IMAX screen with Laser.  The center will host a special day-long event on July 20, with exhibits of Gemini and Apollo space capsules, Apollo era space suits, a Ranger space craft and a lunar sample.  JPL will be onsite with a custom portable planetarium, a special live, interactive and immersive presentation about space science complete with an expert to answer questions. For more information, visit CaliforniaScienceCenter.org.

Now, as the 50th anniversary logo signifies by including the moon and Mars,  NASA astronauts will return to the moon but in preparation for a trip to Mars. The first woman and the next man are scheduled to make a moon landing in 2024.  JPL, with its Rover program, has already been paving the way and will be providing even more information about the Mars with its Rover 2020. PBS Nova, premieres a five-part series, “The Planets” on July 24 (Check local listings). A press preview of its Mars episode included JPL’s Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari and MSL Project Scientist Ashwin R. Vasavada and Caltech’s Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology, John P. Grotzinger.

By remembering the last Giant Leap, you can prepare for the Next Giant Leap from the moon to Mars and Pasadena will be an essential part of that exciting new chapter in space.


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