By Scott Altman
Ten years ago last month, I had just returned from my final flight as the commander of STS 125, a space shuttle mission to repair and renovate the Hubble Space Telescope. In July of that year, my crew and I came to Washington, D.C., as part of NASA’s typical postflight set of visits to Congress and NASA headquarters.
Our visit coincided with the celebration of the Apollo 40th anniversary at the National Air and Space Museum, so we were included in the festivities. One of the highlights for me was actually getting to talk flying with one of my childhood heroes, Neil Armstrong, and sharing the stage with him discussing our experiences. We traded stories about serving in the same fighter squadron and talked about spaceflight. He was truly a tremendously talented and yet humble and reserved person, the perfect choice to be the first man on the moon.
Looking back 50 years, I remember going outside one night in the summer of 1969, while we were living in a small town of 1,000, and looking up and realizing humans were actually on the moon. I never dreamed at the time that I would have an opportunity to fly in space or ever meet the man that first walked on the moon. I am tremendously excited for (and a little jealous of) the next generation that will take us back to the moon and set the stage for humans on Mars.
In 1969, my dad was the principal of the high school and grade school in Wenona, a farming town in north-central Illinois. I remember many high school seniors being drafted and leaving for Vietnam. And it was only two weeks after the moon landing that my maternal grandparents were both killed in an auto accident. I got my first control-line model airplane for my birthday and had my first chance to control a plane in flight. I bought my first vinyl album — The Guess Who’s “Wheatfield Soul,” with “These Eyes” as the lead song — and I remember being fascinated by the lyrics of the song “In the Year 2525” by Zager and Evans and its thoughts about the future.
This is a great moment both to look back and reflect on what a tremendous accomplishment the moon landing was and to realize that we are about to follow in those footsteps again. The Orion spacecraft being readied right now for a launch next year will give us an incredibly capable spaceship to travel those vast distances, while the Space Launch System being assembled near New Orleans provides the power to travel to the moon and beyond.
I am thrilled that our 50th anniversary celebrations are also setting the stage for the future. These celebrations are taking place across the country, from the Road to Apollo XI 50th Anniversary at the Reagan Library in California to an Apollo 50th Gala at Kennedy Space Center underneath one of the remaining Saturn V rockets.
The Smithsonian has plans to put Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit on display again on July 16, launch day of Apollo 11, and hold other events that week on the National Mall. The U.S. Mint has released a series of commemorative coins celebrating the 50th anniversary, with funds from sales going to benefit the Smithsonian and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Started by the original Mercury Seven and continued by the NASA Astronaut Corps today, ASF provides 50 scholarships each year for outstanding students finishing degrees in a wide variety of STEM fields across the country
JFK’s stirring words — “We choose to go to the moon!” — put us on this path and still resonate today. I am thrilled to celebrate our past accomplishments and look forward to the next small step and giant leap.
A Georgetown resident, Scott Altman is a retired U.S. Navy captain and a former NASA astronaut, a veteran of four space shuttle missions.