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Apollo Astronauts Recall Firsts As 50th Anniversary Of Moon Landing Is Celebrated

Bill Zeeble
From left: Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Walter Cunningham and Al Worden visited Dallas to view the unveiling of a painting featuring ten living Apollo astronauts.

July 20  marks the 50th anniversary of the first humans on the moon. Astronauts got there aboard the Apollo spacecraft designed just for that purpose. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin was in Dallas this past spring, with two fellow space travelers, to view the unveiling of a painting featuring ten living Apollo astronauts.

Instead of looking back on the moon landing, the 89 year-old astronaut was looking ahead. He wants NASA to reach Mars. Aldrin believes it’s possible in the next 20 years, especially if NASA proves it’s viability by first building a permanent moon base.

"A spacecraft that takes somebody there can very easily use that same space craft to bring somebody back," Aldrin said. "So If you have someone there, it's pretty easy to continuously occupy with a certain number and still everyone who goes can come back after 6 months maybe a year depending on the conditions."

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Buzz Aldrin in Dallas, attending the unveiling of a painting featuring 10 Apollo astronauts. The second man on the moon believes NASA can realistically reach Mars.

Aldrin shared this dream with President Trump's National Space Council.

Fifty years ago, the most ambitious space dream had nothing to do with Mars, but everything to do with reaching the moon.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Aldrin and commander Neil Armstrong and did just that. With only seconds of fuel left before they would have had to abort the landing, Armstrong gave the word, from a quarter million miles away.

"Houston, uh, Tranquility Base here," Armstrong said on the moon, "the Eagle has landed." 

Six hours later, with the world holding its breath, Armstrong became the first person ever to step onto the moon. Nearly 20 minutes later, Buzz Aldrin followed and said "Beautiful view.  Magnificent desolation."

Aldrin and Armstrong were on the moon less than three hours before it was time go. If the module's rocket failed, there was no backup. Armstrong counted down, the engine ignited, and he and Aldrin rejoined command module pilot Michael Collins to head home.

Leading up to the moon shot were several Apollo missions, each undergoing flight and safety improvements.  Walter Cunningham flew on Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission in space. He was in Dallas with Aldrin when the painting was unveiled.

"As I look back on it, that was the most significant thing in my astronaut career," Cunningham said, "because to this day that's still the longest, the most ambitious, the most successful first test flight of any new flying machine."  

Cunningham says he grew up wanting to be a fighter pilot. That wasn't the case for astronaut Al Worden, part of the Apollo 15 crew in 1971.

"I never thought about flying," Worden said, "never thought about going into space. Of course back in those days we had Buck Rogers but that was about it. I went to college for a totally different thing – music."

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
From left: Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham and Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden visited Dallas in April to view a painting featuring them and 8 other Apollo astronauts. July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

In college though, Worden traded piano to become a pilot, pursuing that goal in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Becoming an astronaut was a different story, however.  

"We used to play games about it," Worden says, "because we would get some poor unsuspecting pilot in our squadron – all of a sudden he would get an official letter from somebody at the Pentagon saying you’ve been selected to be an astronaut. And the rest of us would sit around and laugh at him at him for a month." 

Eventually, Worden changed his mind, becoming the first astronaut on a moon mission to walk in deep space.

"We’re about 190,000 miles out, and I got out and did a space-walk," recalls Worden. "That was a view I could see both the earth and the moon and that was a view-that was pretty exciting to me."

Despite Worden's early reservations, he says entering the space program was the best thing he ever did.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.