For nearly all Americans old enough to remember it, July 20,1969 is a day etched in their minds, and one that Kernersville resident Mike Lucas remembers vividly.
His friend’s parents plopped them down on the couch in front of the black and white TV and said: “Don’t move. You’re about to see history.”
What happened next sent shockwaves through the world as Neil Armstrong became the first human to ever set foot on the moon uttering his famous line: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“The unique thing was, for one brief moment in time, all races, all religions — any division you can put human beings into — everybody on the planet stood together as one,” said Lucas, who was 18 at the time. “We, as humans, visited another world. We did the impossible.”
Lucas was among the more than 600 million worldwide that watched the much-anticipated and historic moment unfold on television 50 years ago.
The successful Apollo 11 mission came just years after President John F. Kennedy announced a national goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the 1960s.
At the time of Kennedy’s 1961 speech, astronaut Alan Shepard had just become the first American in space with his 15-minute suborbital flight on the Freedom 7 — also known as Mercury-Redstone 3 — mission.
“We couldn’t even put a person in orbit yet, so talking about putting a person on the moon, are you kidding?” Lucas said, emphasizing the significance of the accomplishment. “I think humans wanting to go to the moon far predates space flight, but we just never had the means to do so.”
Lucas, 68, had dreams of becoming an astronaut, especially in an age where astronauts were lauded as heroes and the race to conquer space was intensifying.
In the summer of 1970, Lucas had his first brush with astronauts when he was working at a Texas airport and answered a phone call from a man, who identified himself as “Alan Shepard.”
“I thought ‘Huh, he has the same name as this famous astronaut. I wonder if it’s him,’” said Lucas, then a student at University of Houston. “When I was 10, I had watched Alan Shepard on the school TV make history, but I never dreamed I’d meet the man.”
Sure enough, Shepard — who became the fifth man to walk on the moon — and fellow astronaut Deke Slayton drove up and talked to an awed-teenage Lucas for a while before heading to their plane.
Over the years, their interaction evolved into a friendship and Lucas, who became an airline pilot, ended up doing some part-time flying for Shepard, he said.
After the subsequent five crewed moon landings between 1969 and 1972, Lucas attempted to pursue a career as an astronaut but was told by the military that, at age 25, he was too old.
But he maintained his passion for space, and in the years since has met or befriended 10 of the 12 men who walked on the moon, including Neil Armstrong, and 20 of the 24 astronauts who went on manned-missions to the moon.
Charles Duke, who became the youngest person at age 36 to walk on the moon, remains a close friend of his, he said, and likes to tell the story about how he nearly died on the moon trying to jump as high as he could.
“They were all my idols and my heroes growing up, so getting to meet and know some of these guys was incredible,” said Lucas, who started with Piedmont Airlines in 1984 and retired from American Airlines in 2013. “They’re human just like the rest of us, but were uniquely qualified at a pivotal point in history to do something that had never been done before.”
'A matter of time'
For the first 35 years of Bob Patsiga’s life, man visiting the moon was more of a fantasy than a reality.
“Growing up, I was quite confident we would do it. It was just a matter of time,” said Patsiga, who was then a science educator in Pennsylvania. “Of course, it was a bit disappointing because it was very shadowy and the voice was a bit scratchy on the broadcast, but the fact it was actually happening, that was just the amazing part.”
Patsiga, who will be 85 in September, said he first became interested in science because of his older brother, Joe, a WWII veteran, who knew all the constellations and got him interested in astronomy.
After the moon landing, Patsiga, a member of the Forsyth Astronomical Society, said he toyed with the idea of a career of an astronaut but realized in his 30s he was too old.
As more successful moon missions occurred, Patsiga watched with interest as they were each broadcast on home televisions and at all the appliance stores.
“I was sorry the moon program didn’t continue. It was amazing that, except for Apollo 13, they all worked after Apollo 11,” said Patsiga, who retired a few months ago from Kaleideum North's planetarium. “I’m so proud of my country.”
Spurred on by the Cold War and the pursuit of knowledge, the race to the moon was not without risk.
During a preflight test for the first manned-mission to the moon, Apollo 1, in 1967, three astronauts were killed.
There was still so much that was unknown and the launches had to be timed to avoid anticipated solar flares, which emit high levels of radiation, said Eric Carlson, a professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
“Everyone said, ‘We’ve got to beat the Russians,’ but space travel was still risky,” Carlson said. “The solution for the Apollo missions was to launch at a good time and hope for some luck that they wouldn’t encounter a solar flare.”
While the Earth is always bombarded with radiation from the sun, the Earth’s magnetosphere acts as a shield, Carlson said. Traveling to the moon increases the risk for high radiation exposure.
But despite the dangers, huge amounts of money were poured into the program and people were very excited about the possibilities space exploration presented, said Carlson.
“I was 7, but my parents calling me in to make sure I watched the astronauts stepping on to the moon for the first time,” Carlson, 57, said. “I thought ‘Hey, maybe I’ll be an astronaut someday.’ I think it inspired a lot of people of my generation to go into science.”
The moon landing success was monumental and set other things in motion, including expediting the development of computers since NASA needed a way to quickly calculate orbits, he said.
While humans haven’t been back to the moon in more than 45 years, traveling to the moon remains possible, it’s just expensive.
“There’s almost nothing a human can do that a machine can’t do on the moon and it’s much, much cheaper to not send humans,” Carlson said, who got his Ph.D at Harvard University and specializes in elementary particle theory.
Carlson said the 1969 moon landing has unleashed possibilities and he foresees a permanent moon base near the south pole of the moon, perhaps, in about 20 years.
He said he also expects there will be more exploration into the icy moons of Jupiter and into the viability of Mars.
“We need to know whether Mars has life on it, it could be bacteria,” Carlson said. “I think the next thing comparable to the moonshot is an unmanned mission to Mars designed to bring a sample back.”
Mars the new moon-landing?
Mars exploration is in the works, and its magnitude and potential could be seen as the modern-day parallel to the moon landing, said Rafael Louriero, a Winston Salem State University (WSSU) professor.
WSSU has partnered with NASA to research what types of plants could grow on lunar or Martian soils to enable human travel to and, possibly, colonization of Mars.
Louriero said the emerging research, which includes understanding how crops grow in low-gravity, was born out of the historic moon landing.
“For me, (it’s) a continuation of what happened in 1969,” said Louriero, a professor of botany. “It brings a new generation of people that, motivated by (the moon landing), seek to secure a place for humankind out in the cosmos.”
While Louriero was born 11 years after the moon landing, he said the event has had “an incommensurable effect” in influencing his career path.
It wasn’t until he was 10 years old that he saw images of the lunar lander touch down on the moon's surface and video documenting the historic event during school.
While his classmates were more excited that they got to watch a movie instead of having a lesson, the day stuck firmly in his mind.
“I was completely smitten by the image of a man walking on the surface of something that seemed so distant, so far away,” said Louriero, who went on to get his Ph.D. in conservation and tropical botany in Brazil. “My work, guaranteeing that they (astronauts) will have enough food to survive those journeys and possibly colonize other planets, was a natural route for me to follow.”
The Astrobotany Lab at WSSU has received grants from the NASA North Carolina Space Grant Consortium to work on analyzing seed viability on Martian simulant soil and on lunar simulant soils.
The research will determine how to feed future colonists who will transition from the moon to Mars and how to secure a safe transition of crops from lunar to Martian soil, Louriero said.
The moon landing helped catalyze the ability to “dream without restrictions, to make the impossible possible,” Louriero said, especially as technology continues to evolve and advance.
“The technology that you have now, available 24/7 on the palm of your hands, is way more advanced from the technology that put those men (on the moon) and, more importantly, brought them back,” Louriero said, referencing smartphones.
“Apollo's feat can be a great example of how hard work, sacrifice and risk-taking are necessary steps for any success story to happen.”