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July 20th, 2019— Today marks the 50th anniversary of astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s first steps on the moon. To celebrate, museums across the country are hosting exhibits which honor the historic landing. From a giant replica of the first moon footprint to zero gravity flights, TIME magazine and The Verge have compiled a list of events that celebrate NASA’s monumental achievements!

Last week, the California Science Center (CSC) invited HWF to a free screening of Apollo 11: First Steps Edition. This giant-screen IMAX edition of Todd Douglas Miller’s critically acclaimed Apollo 11 documentary features actual footage of from one of humanity’s greatest achievements. The film outlines the 9-day Apollo 11 journey from the perspective of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the Mission Control team, and millions of spectators around the world. The film is being screened at science centers around the country. It explores the fiery take-off of the mission’s 300-foot rocket, in-flight footage shot by the Apollo 11 crew, Armstrong’s remarkable first steps on the moon, the shuttle’s return to the atmosphere, and the cheers of Americans across a country.

A path to the moon

Long before Apollo 11’s successful moon landing, humans wrote about the mysteries of the heaven and skies above. In the 17th century, famed astronomer Galileo Galilei wrote: “It is a beautiful and delightful sight to behold the body of the Moon.“ Over 350 years after Galileo discovered that the moon has mountains similar to earth, space travel became a reality. In 1957, Russia made a spectacular breakthrough in launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Space exploration served as another dramatic arena for Cold War competition and Russia’s successful satellite launch propelled Americans into action. One year after the launch of Sputnik, the US signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (NASA), creating the nation’s first civilian space agency. By 1958, America had launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, in response to Sputnik. The expansion of human knowledge and space travel quickly became a priority for Americans who were challenged to develop a vessel that could safely transport man into space before their Russian adversaries. On April 12th, 1961 the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach space. Six weeks later, President John F. Kennedy declared to the world that by the end of the decade, NASA would complete the Apollo mission and send humans to the moon. The federal government made Apollo a national priority, pouring an estimated $25 billion (which translates to nearly $120 billion in today’s currency) into the program.

Following a disastrous Apollo 1 mission that killed three crew members during launch, Apollo 7 was the first mission to bring astronauts into space, but it did not land on the moon. Two more missions carried astronauts close to the moon, but it was not until July 20th, 1969 that the Apollo 11 mission transported the first humans to the surface of the moon. As Armstrong opened the hatch and took the first steps on the moon he declared, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Buzz Aldrin walks the moon. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The women behind the scenes

While the astronauts of Apollo 11 traveled to the moon, the women of NASA were blazing new trails here on Earth. Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, Joann Morgan, Katherine Johnson, Saydean Zeldin, and Margaret Hamilton are among the hundreds of women who were critical to the success of the Apollo 11 mission. These women did everything from developing Apollo 11’s in-flight software module to weaving wire for the spacecraft’s guidance system, yet for years they remained hidden behind the achievements of their male counterparts. During the CSC screening of the Apollo 11 film, HWF was fortunate enough to meet Poppy, a mathematician and engineer contracted by TRW Systems to work with NASA on the Apollo program. Half a decade after the then 25-year-old Northcutt designed and built the descent engine for the Apollo 11’s lunar lander, she shared what it was like to be a female engineer in a sea of men, “Being the only woman, I felt a lot of pressure. I started looking around at the men who were working with me and I thought, ‘You know, I’m as smart as they are.” Spend five minutes in Poppy’s presence and it becomes apparent just how smart she is. At one point, the film’s director showed the IMAX audience a deleted scene from Apollo 11: First Steps Edition in which Poppy could be heard correcting a male on his mathematical calculations that projected Apollo’s return from space. If done incorrectly, these calculations could rewrite the trajectory of the spacecraft and the astronauts could bypass earth entirely. Northcutt, whose sense of humor and candor could break through the toughest crowd, explained that “landing on the earth is a lot like throwing a dart in Texas and hitting a moving object in California— precision is key.”

The first lunar landing paved the way for a total of 12 astronauts to walk the surface of the moon. While the last physical exploration of this celestial body happened more than 40 years ago, human curiosity remains a constant. We are a species whose science, literature, art, and culture have posited the mysteries that lie beyond our world. One can almost be certain, that the moon is only the first step in a continuous journey that will unfold the unknowns of the multi-verse.

Women gather excitedly to meet

Poppy Northcutt at the California Science Center.

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