“It’s going to be pretty special.”
Scott Babinowich can be forgiven for such an understatement when describing the 50th Anniversary celebrating marking the First Lunar Landing at Wright Brothers National Memorial on Saturday, July 20. After all, how can any description capture the magnitude of celebrating humankind’s greatest space triumph at the exact spot where man first flew?
Babinowich, chief of interpreter for the Outer Banks Group of the National Parks of Eastern NC, invites the public to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center on Saturday to recreate the night of July 20, 1969, when U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong made that “one giant leap for mankind” by stepping onto the surface of the moon.
Those old enough to remember where they were when they watched the seminal event will join those who have only read about the epic mission in the exact location manned flight began — where on the morning of Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane 20 feet above a wind-swept beach in North Carolina.
“More than a thousand people showed up to the (moon landing) viewing back in 1969, when park rangers set up two televisions on the patio of the museum,” he said.
This year, crowds can watch the original July 20, 1969, broadcast of the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” — the anchor who was often referred to as "the most trusted man in America."
The 42-minute news segment — compiled by NASA — will show the nail-biting touchdown on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility and those first famous steps taken by Armstrong as he set foot on the surface of the moon. No one knew if they would make it, no one knew if they would survive, and no one knew if they would make it back safely to earth. It was completely uncharted territory for mankind — but the mission was a success, and a legitimate reason for unbridled jubilation.
In the archival footage, the ever-professional Cronkite could not contain his own awe at the monumental feat: “"Man on the moon!" Cronkite exclaimed. “…"Oh, boy!" he said, as he took off his glasses and rubbed his hands together with visible emotion.
A little more than six hour later, the world watched as Armstrong made his descent from the ladder of the lunar module to the soft surface of the moon.
“Armstrong is on the moon!" Cronkite said with astonishment and pride. “Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon on this July 20th, nineteen hundred and sixty nine."
And then Armstrong uttered perhaps the most important words in history: “That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."
Recognizing that many in attendance on Saturday will not have even been born in 1969, the park service will provide some introductory context from park officials and NASA astronaut Eric A. Boe. Boe is a veteran of two space shuttle flights, serving as a pilot for the Space Shuttles Endeavour, and Discovery. He will give a special “Ask an Astronaut” program and take part in a public meet-and-greet on Saturday, prior to speaking at the evening’s feature event.
“We are fortunate to host an active NASA astronaut for this event,” Babinowich said. “Astronauts are carrying on the legacy of the Wright brothers."
The hosts encourage visitors to show up dressed in the style of the 1960s, adding to the nostalgic feel of the night.
“Everyone alive then knows where they were when Armstrong stepped onto the moon,” Babinowich said. “It is one of those moments in time people are connected to. For those who lived it, this is a neat way to pay respect for how the country was then. For those who didn’t experience it, this will be a meaningful step back in time.”
The special event matches the goals of the Center.
“We see this as a community event,” he said. “This is an opportunity to watch this either for the first time or relive an amazing memory from the past. It is a worldwide experience.”
The staff is also pulling out photos from the archives from the 1960s. Many astronauts visited Kill Devil Hills during training or after their famous space flights.
“This site has always been an important part of human exploration,” he said. “It is still amazing to make this connection, to be sitting where people flew for the first time. The themes are relative, about human ingenuity and resilience, our urge to explore the boundaries of science. The same things that pushed the Wright brothers pushed space exploration.”
Babinowich knows that everyone who comes out on July 20 will leave with a new appreciation of the Center and its place in history.
“First, this is an opportunity for folks to visit the grounds after normal hours, which is a different way to experience the Wright Brothers monument. Next, this is a once in a generation opportunity. We are talking about the 50th anniversary of one of mankind’s most monumental achievements. We hope people walk away with the same feeling from 50 years ago, with that sense of awe about what man is capable of accomplishing, to see the significance and feel the power through its historical context.”
A special night, indeed.