Larry Saunders was 16, flipping burgers at McDonald’s, when Neil Armstrong stepped off the Apollo 11 lunar module and onto the moon 50 years ago. That moment sparked a lifelong love of astronomy for Saunders, president of the Charlottesville Astronomical Society.
“I think it’s one of the biggest technological feats for mankind to be able to reach out to another world,” he said.
On Tuesday at The Center, he discussed the July 20, 1969, moon landing, the missions leading up to it and the future of space exploration. That event is one of a few this month in Charlottesville to mark the milestone’s anniversary.
A screening of the PBS documentary series “Chasing the Moon” will be held at 7 pm. Friday. The local PBS station is hosting the event at Light House Studio/Vinegar Hill Theatre. It will feature a 45-minute screening and a panel discussion. For more information, go to WVPTWHTJChasingThe Moon.Eventbrite.com.
Looking back, Saunders said the moon landing was remarkable because of what NASA engineers and scientists were able to accomplish on a quick timeline. Former President John F. Kennedy announced the decision to put a man on the moon in 1961. The first mission in 1967 killed three astronauts, but two years later, Apollo 11 made history in 1969.
Saunders’ presentation included diagrams of the rockets and videos of the Apollo 11 mission, and he detailed the mechanics of landing on the moon and returning to Earth.
“It’s amazing they went as far as they did with the equipment they had,” he said.
Saunders asked the 20 or so people who attended Tuesday’s discussion to share where they watched the landing. Some were at home with young children, a summer camp or on the floor of a grandparent’s house.
More than 600 million people worldwide tuned in to watch the black and white transmission from space.
Saunders said the Astronomical Society is getting grayer and there’s not as much interest as there used to be.
“Walking on the moon was such an accomplishment,” he said. “It sparked a lot of interest. We haven’t had anything like that in a while.”
He’s hoping the upcoming lunar missions will stir more interest in the final frontier.
After Apollo 11, moon missions continued until 1972, when space priorities shifted. Saunders said moon missions required millions of dollars and thousands of people.
“There was not popular support for spending that kind of money,” Saunders said.
Today, NASA’s $21.5 billion budget accounts for less than 0.5% of the federal budget, though the agency received a slight funding boost this year to fund human space exploration.
President Donald Trump has put a renewed focus on space exploration and wants to see a person on the moon by 2024. Sending a crew to the moon could cost $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years, NASA officials have said.
Trump’s interest in going to the moon is shared by other countries, such as South Korea and Japan, as well as private companies, according to Saunders’ presentation.