On July 20, 1969, NASA defied Earth’s boundaries and put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. It was the culmination of millennia of questions, experiments, failures and small successes.
Meridian watched in awe with the rest of the world.
Janet Berg lives in Meridian and grew up watching the evolution of space exploration. She saw the moon landing on television when she was at a friend’s sleepover.
“We had actually retired for the night,” she said. “We had gone to bed.”
Her friend’s dad alerted the two that it was time to gather around the TV. Something major was happening.
“I can still see it,” she said. “I remember thinking how awesome that was.”
A vision for the future
Children, teens and adults alike were inspired by the moon landing. Today, Meridianites who have worked and studied through NASA say it gives them a vision for the future.
Alexander kept an eye on the space race years before President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of a moon-landing that would come to fruition in Apollo 11.
He remembers when the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The United States fired back with Explorer I a year later.
Tensions rose between the two superpowers as objectives became more grandiose.
“When John Kennedy was elected president, one of the things [he said] was, ‘We will put a man on the moon and bring him back in this decade,’” Alexander recalled. “And they did exactly that.”
In the 1980s, Alexander participated in NEWMAST, a NASA-run crash course for math and science teachers around the country. He brought back reams of information for students.
A few were quickly “fired up about aerospace engineering,” he recalled.
Three went on to work for NASA.
One is Tracy Johnson, who worked as an engineer on the shuttle program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“I loved every minute of that,” she said. “It goes back to the Apollo astronauts. These guys paved the pathway for us. They took on exploration.”
Today, she is the Deputy Space Launch System Project Planning and Control Manager there.
“Now we’re looking at how we are going to keep them on the moon in a sustainable way and go on to Mars,” she said, referencing NASA’s new goal to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028.
“We actually are very far along in the building of our first flight, which we call Artemis 1.”
Fifty years ago today, as millions on Earth watched NASA's lunar module Eagle touch down in Sea of Tranquility, Michael Collins was alone.
Johnson and Alexander stay in touch. Every other year, Alexander takes a class to visit Huntsville and see NASA in action.
“What I really like about Tracy is she’s a brilliant young lady, but, being a female, she’s gonna inspire other female students, some that maybe don’t think they can go into engineering or do engineering,” Alexander said.
Alexander shared his love of aerospace with Johnson when she was his pupil at Meridian High School.
“I always had that science and math interest,” she said. “That led me to considering chemical engineering as a degree. When I grew up, the mindset that I had was that was more of a strict manufacturing environment.”
She first worked in the paper industry before landing her engineering job at NASA.
“Mr. Alexander will expose you to NASA in his classroom,” she said with a laugh. “He’d talk a lot to us, but when you don’t grow up around that, you don’t stop and think, ‘That’s something I could do.’”
Now, she allows students of his to mirror her at Huntsville.
'Number-one dream job'
In Meridian, college kids are learning the history, science and innovation behind NASA as well.
Meridian Community College students are participating in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars program, a series of classes provided by the agency in two phases. The first phase involves online classes. The second, soon to start at MCC, allows some of the students from the first phase to visit a NASA facility for an on-site retreat or workshop.
“Ultimately, I think NASA wants to grow their future workforce, but they also want to reach out to community college students and encourage them to major in areas that are important to NASA, and to complete their education,” said chemistry instructor Angela Carraway, who has helped lead the pilot program.
Electronics technology and communications major Brandon Harkins said working on rovers for NASA is his “number-one dream job.” That dream has roots in his father living in Houston, close to the Space Center, where he would peak in every so often.
With knowledge of Apollo 11’s history and current science available to him, Harkins believes it’s plausible that humans will reach Mars in his lifetime. Before the courses, he had doubts.
Matthew McNeil, an accounting major, never had an astronomy course before NCAS.
“I didn’t know any of the details of how (space travel) worked,” he said.
“It’s always kind of interested me.”
A key takeaway from the course was the power of the human mind and determination, he said.
“(The moon landing) is just a symbol that we worked hard, did a lot of effort and in the end we went there.”
Alexander noted that the generation before his traveled by buggy and saw the moon landing in the same lifetime. He wonders what will be achieved by a new generation.