MANKATO, Minn. — To Carole Peterson of Mankato, the whole notion still seems audacious.
"It's just amazing. Who had that dream in the first place?" Peterson said.
A fanciful fantasy for thousands of generations of humans, the idea of going to the moon became a national goal in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy suggested America accomplish the daunting challenge within the next eight years. At the time of Kennedy's speech to a joint session of Congress, the first jet airliners hadn't been in service for even a decade. The first artificial satellite had been launched into Earth orbit only four years earlier. Computers available at the time were the size of a car but millions of times less powerful than today's cellphones.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was just three years old, but the fledgling organization assembled a vast team of American engineers (with critical assistance from a few Germans), top minds from a wide spectrum of the sciences and some fearless pilots who were dubbed "astronauts."
In a handful of years, they cobbled together a program to make the dream a reality.
"It just boggles my mind," Peterson said.
For Linda Good of Cleveland, the successful mission that launched 50 years ago this week provides hope — that people can still set aside differences, agree to tackle the world's most complex problems, and work together to find a solution.
"Doesn't it inspire you?" Good asked a group of fellow southern Minnesotans last week, all of them old enough to remember July of 1969. "If we can accomplish that, we can accomplish anything."
For Mary Richard, who was just 10 years old when the lunar module "Eagle" landed on the moon, it just seemed terribly unfair. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got to bounce around the lunar landscape while Michael Collins was stuck up in the orbiting command module "Columbia."
"I just couldn't understand why they all didn't come out and walk on the moon," said Richard of Mankato, recalling her parents' attempt to explain that somebody had to keep an eye on Columbia — to make sure "it didn't go floating off or something" so it could return the astronauts to Earth.
Richard still thought Collins got a raw deal.
"It's like going to Disneyland and having to sit in the car."
A Sputnik moment
Peterson, Good and Richard are among the regulars who meet weekly at the VINE Adult Community Center to reminisce about a wide variety of topics.
"We've done 'What we want on our gravestones,'" Good said. "We've done 'Outhouse memories.' ... We did 'What brings you joy?'"
They laugh a lot. A guy named John, for instance, delivered this line with a straight face: "My last name is Hurd. I wanted to be an astronaut so I could be 'The Hurd shot 'round the world.'"
But some of the older members of the group remembered that their first real awareness of rockets and man-made orbiting objects was not a laughing matter.
Sputnik was successfully launched into Earth orbit by the Soviets in October of 1957, and Bev Stoufer of Mankato still remembers the reaction to the news by her sixth-grade teacher.
"She was normally very light-hearted, but she was very worried," Stoufer said. "Because the Russians had put Sputnik up and we needed to do something about it."
The idea of Soviet dominance of space was frightening in the midst of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.
"It was this threat of being annihilated by an atomic weapon," said Jan Prehn of Madison Lake.
Sputnik was just the first of multiple successful Russian missions, and President Kennedy urgently wanted to make America — not the Soviet Union — the nation that epitomized space exploration, technological innovation and an unsinkable can-do spirit.
Roger Stoufer, a retired Mankato English and history teacher, desperately wanted Kennedy to be proven right.
"I worshiped John F. Kennedy," Stoufer said. "... He said we could do it, and I wanted it to be successful."
400 elephants, 85 Hoover Dams
Kennedy issued the assignment. Engineers had to design a machine that could do the job. Even today, engineers marvel at what they came up with.
"They're all inspired by this monstrosity that was the Saturn V rocket," said Michael Rutkowski, an assistant professor of astronomy at Minnesota State University.
The Saturn V was taller than the Statue of Liberty, about the height of a 36-story building. It was something of a fuel hog. A car that gets 30 mpg could circle the Earth 800 times with the fuel required to get the astronauts to the moon and back, according to NASA.
Including that massive amount of fuel, the rocket weighed as much as 400 elephants. And when the engines fired at launch, they generated as much power as 85 Hoover Dams.
"You ask any engineer the 10 biggest inventions in the history of the world, you have the wheel, you have the light bulb, you have the Saturn V ...," Rutkowski said. "The Golden Gate Bridge is a big deal. The tallest building in the world is a big deal. But it doesn't have to move."
The Saturn V, after shrugging off the inertia of its 6.2 million pounds, began to rise off the launch pad at 8:32 a.m. Central Daylight Time on July 16, 1969. In the first seconds, the rocket didn't appear particularly swift. When it got up to speed, though, there was no doubt that it could really move.
"Apollo still holds the record for fastest manned vehicle," Rutkowski said. "They went to the moon at just under 25,000 mph."
Four days later
The highest drama of the Apollo 11 mission came on July 20 with the perilous landing of the lunar module, its fuel running dangerously low as it avoided a boulder field, and Armstrong's momentous first step on the surface of the moon.
Distractions were everywhere in 1969 — the ongoing Vietnam war, student protests, civil rights unrest, Woodstock, Charlie Manson, Chappaquiddick ... . For a moment, the Apollo mission allowed people to set aside their differences and root together for the success and safety of three Americans utterly alone more than 200,000 miles from home. An estimated 600 million viewers around the world watched the moon landing on television.
After the Eagle had landed at 3:18 p.m. Central Daylight Time, there was more than a six-hour wait for the door to open. The famous "giant leap for mankind" came at 9:56 p.m. Mankato time.
"All those hours, I was glued to the TV," Bev Stoufer said. "I think I just jumped for joy when Armstrong walked out. I was so proud to be an American."
Mark Fischenich is a reporter for the Mankato, Minnesota, Free Press.