CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A moonstruck nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's “giant leap” by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at parties, races, ballgames and concerts Saturday, toasting with Tang and gobbling MoonPies.
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Aldrin showed Vice President Mike Pence the launch pad where he flew to the moon in 1969. At the same time halfway around the world, an American and two other astronauts blasted into space on a Russian rocket headed for the International Space Station. And in Armstrong's hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, nearly 2,000 runners competed in “Run to the Moon” races.
“Apollo 11 is the only event in the 20th century that stands a chance of being widely remembered in the 30th century,” the vice president said.
Wapakoneta 10K runner Robert Rocco, 54, a retired Air Force officer from Centerville, Ohio, called the moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin “perhaps the most historic event in my lifetime, maybe in anybody's lifetime.”
At the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Gilda Warden sat on a bench and gazed in awe at the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, on display. “It's like entering the Sistine Chapel and seeing the ceiling. You want to just sit there and take it in,” said Warden, 63, a psychiatric nurse from Tacoma, Washington.
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin undocked from Columbia in lunar orbit and then descended in the lunar module Eagle to the Sea of Tranquility. The Eagle landed with just 17 seconds of fuel to spare. Six hours later, Armstrong was the first to step onto the lunar surface, proclaiming for the ages: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was humanity's first footsteps on another world.
In a speech at Kennedy, Pence paid tribute to Armstrong, Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins – if they're not heroes, “then there are no heroes” – as well as the 400,000 Americans who worked tirelessly to get them to the moon.
Aldrin, 89, grabbed the right hand of Neil Armstrong's older son, Rick, at Pence's mention of heroes. He then stood and saluted, and received a standing ovation. Armstrong died in 2012. Collins, 88, did not attend the Florida ceremony. But Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt, the next-to-last man to walk on the moon in 1972, was there.
NASA had other celebrations going on Saturday, most notably at Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to Mission Control; the U.S. Space and Rocket Center next door to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V moon rockets were born; and the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
And where better to celebrate than Apollo, Pennsylvania – located in Armstrong County not far from Moon Township and the town of Mars. The historical society revived the annual moon-landing celebration in honor of the big 50. All of the Apollo astronauts have long been honorary citizens of Apollo, the society's Alan Morgan said.
Clocks all over counted down to the exact moment of the Eagle's landing on the moon – 4:17 p.m. EDT – and Armstrong's momentous step onto the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EDT. The powdered orange drink Tang was back in vogue for the toasts, along with marshmallow and chocolate MoonPies, including a 55-pound, 45,000-calorie MoonPie at Kennedy's One Giant Leap bash.
At New York's Yankee Stadium, former space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino threw out the ceremonial first pitch to former pitcher Jack Aker, who was on the mound when the July 20, 1969, baseball game was interrupted to announce that the Eagle had landed. Armstrong and Aldrin were “A1, No. 1, higher than major league,” Aker recalled Saturday. “It's a mutual feeling,” Massimino agreed.