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Nancy VanLandingham (center) with her sister and a friend holding newspapers from July 21, 1969. (Courtesy of Nancy Vanlandingham)

(State College) — Saturday, July 20th is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 moon landing, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren walked on the lunar surface.

Nancy VanLandingham of Warrior’s Mark was 14 years old in 1969.

“To me, it felt like it was pretty much the most important thing that had happened in my lifetime,” VanLandingham said.

As she remembers it, everyone back then was focused on space travel.

“We were all in it together,” VanLandingham said. “We really felt like it wasn’t even just an American thing.  It was like everybody around the world was watching this.”

She recalled the night she watched the big boxy TV in her living room as Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the moon.

“And the whole family gathered around, my younger brother and my parents and my sister and I and our two friends,” said VanLandingham. “And it was just wonderful.  These grainy images of people in spacesuits walking on the moon was mind-blowing.  And it felt like the most important thing I’d ever seen. And I felt like ‘Wow!  I’m here.  I get to see it!'”

Astronaut James Pawelczyk, professor of kinesiology at Penn State, didn’t know back then that he, too, would one day fly in space. (He was a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle in 1998).

“I was 9 years old, and I got to stay up late,” Pawelczyk said. “So, yeah, I can remember seeing those fuzzy black and white images curled up on the couch.”  

But like many kids in the 1960’s, he was inspired by the Apollo program.  And by his grandmother’s dying wish.

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Astronaut James Pawelczyk’s official NASA portrait. (Courtesy of NASA)

“And one of the things she said,” Pawelczyk recalled, “this woman from central Poland, who had immigrated to America and gone through this incredible journey in life.  She said, ‘I want to stay alive long enough to see men walk on the moon.’ And when I flew on the Space Shuttle, in my personal preference kit was a picture of my grandmother. So even if she didn’t see it, she got to go to space.”  

Tamra Fatemi of State College was visiting her grandparents on the night of the first moon walk.

“I don’t have a whole lot of memories of when I was 6 years old, but I do remember that night,” Fatemi said,”being with my grandfather, in his living room with the big old box TV. And my sister and I were both there, watching the moon landing.

he has black & white photos of that old TV set, taken by her grandfather at the moment when Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon.  

“You know, they’re of the television screen, actually,” Fatemi said. “You can kind of barely make out the astronauts. But I do have a very vivid memory of that television, and seeing the first steps on the moon, and him telling us, ‘You have to remember this. It’s really important.'”  

Denny Gioia is a professor of business management at Penn State. But he started out with a BS in engineering. And 1969, while working for Boeing, he was assigned to Cape Kennedy, Florida, as part of the engineering team for Apollo 12, and the backup team for Apollo 11.

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Denny Gioia holds a photo of the launch control room where he worked as an engineer for Apollo 12 and part of the backup engineering team for Apollo 11. (Min Xian/WPSU)

“Having been personally involved with it, it’s unquestionably the most gratifying experience of my life,” Gioia recalled. “For most of the time, I was at the center monitoring all of the communications, all the video – and of course we had video that the public did not have so we could see everything that was going on, so that was pretty exciting.”

It was a great sense of relief.  A great sense of awe. A great sense of accomplishment, national pride, the whole gamut.”

But with it came a dilemma for Gioia.

“How do you ever top that?” he said. “I was age 22. And so you live the rest of your life saying I can never again do anything of that magnitude.”

Retired Coast Guard captain Richard Marcott of Bradford missed seeing the moon landing altogether.  He was at work on the cutter Resolute, enforcing fishing treaties in Alaska, with no good TV reception on his ship.

“We had a Russian factory vessel reportedly catching Alaskan king crab,” Marcott said. “We had to go aboard. On our trip over, in a small boat, it was easy to see the significant antenna arrays that they had. It seemed unusual for a commercial factory vessel.”   

When Marcott boarded the Russian vessel, he saw a huge pile of Alaskan king crab sitting on the deck. But what happened that day was much bigger than a fishing dispute.

“And the captain took my hand,” he recalled. “and in very good English said ‘Congratulations. Your man has landed safely on the moon.’ So I found out about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon from a Russian captain in the middle of the Bearing Sea.”

And so the story will be passed on, from generation to generation.  By Russians, Americans, and all of humanity: the story of our very first visit to the moon.

WPSU’s Min Xian also contributed to this story.