Local scientists remember Apollo mission 40 years ago

BY HOLLY HINES | JULY 20, 2009 7:15 AM

On a borrowed black-and-white TV, a young Philip Kaaret watched the first Moon landing with his family during a vacation in Finland.

Now, the UI professor in the physics and astronomy department — along with other educators — remembers the events of July 20, 1969. It was the day the Apollo 11 lunar landing vehicle touched down.

It was also a day that inspired their future careers.

“I had previous interest in science, but [the Moon landing] definitely reinforced it,” said Kaaret, who still recalls the details of the Apollo 11 poster he owned as a child.

Another UI physics/ astronomy professor, Donald Gurnett, recalls hearing astronaut Neil Armstrong say, “The eagle has landed,” as he and his colleague, Buzz Aldrin, became the first men on the Moon. Michael Collins — the other astronaut on board — had remained in orbit around the Moon.

Gurnett — who has logged more than 50 years of experience in space research — said he heard the radio transmission at a Cedar Rapids drive-in restaurant.

“I followed it very closely, as did much of the nation,” he said.

Equipment from Rockwell Collins, a Cedar Rapids-based engineering company, made the historic voice transmissions possible, according to company officials.

Before the Moon landing, Gurnett researched space with celebrated UI Professor James Van Allen, whose famous discoveries helped fuel the space race in the late-50s and the ’60s. Van Allen helped develop instruments for Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite sent into space.

Over the past 50 years, the UI has provided equipment for 62 different spacecraft, Gurnett said. He cited Cassini — a satellite launched to orbit Saturn in 1997 — as an important example.

The early space program inspired UI Professor Craig Kletzing to pursue a career working with NASA.

As a space-plasma physicist, he’s “very much involved in the space biz,” he said.

Kletzing remembers the buzz surrounding the event in 1969, and he is keeping up with current excitement by reading articles about the anniversary.

In Cedar Rapids, Rockwell Collins employees have an opportunity to plug into the excitement today as well. The company is hosting a discussion panel of former locals involved in the Apollo 11 project, according to company officials.

For others, online resources — such as Twitter — are providing detailed retrospective commemoration of the event. Users such as AP11_SPACECRAFT are Tweeting moment-by-moment timelines of what happened exactly 40 years ago.

“And as the Moon sinks slowly in the west, Apollo 11 bids good day to you,” one read.

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