In July, there will be many opportunities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

NASA already has program lessons posted online for young students, some featuring that intrepid beagle Snoopy who has a long association with NASA. Online and on TV, PBS will begin its Summer of Space with new documentaries premiering as well as space-related encores. Two special screenings and celebrations will also help commemorate that one giant leap for mankind. As the NASA logo suggests, all are looking toward the Next Giant Leap.

From July 5 to Aug. 11, the Rose Bowl will host a new 360-degree adventure, “Apollo 11: The Immersive Live Show,” which will feature an original story performed by a 20-member ensemble inside a “Lunar Dome” containing 40,000 square feet of video projections that take visitors from the launch of the enormous Saturn V rocket to the moon. The Apollo 11 presentation features life-sized rockets and expects to perform in 18 cities across the US for the next three years.

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Beginning on Monday, PBS’s “American Experience” features the three-part series “Chasing the Moon,” answering questions about being an astronaut. It also looks at diversity and sexism during the days of the Apollo mission, while reminding us of the period’s tumultuous political backdrop. 

Part One, “A Place Beyond the Sky,” features CBS Evening News Anchorman Walter Cronkite and other journalists describing how they attempted to bring what was essentially a “radio story” of disembodied voices with no visuals to the American public. The race to beat the Russians to the moon started under President John F. Kennedy, but Apollo 11 reached the moon under President Richard M. Nixon.

Part Two on July 9, “Earthrise,” reveals a not-so-hidden figure, Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, and the tale of the first African-American astronaut candidate, Ed Dwight. To get the public behind the race to the moon, astronauts were used for public relations purposes. Although it was 20 years before an African American would make it into space, Dwight, now a sculptor, raised the hopes of people around the world.

At 25, Northcutt, was not an astronaut, but she still gained fame as the first woman in NASA’s flight control room.

“What I remember most about Apollo 11 is that it was so very normal,” Northcutt recalled in a recent telephone interview. “When you’re simulating and planning for missions, you’re dealing with things that have gone wrong. The most surprising thing about Apollo 11 was almost everything was going right.” As a contractor with TRW, Northcutt said, “All women at the time were swimming in the sea of sexism,” and while it still exists, “it’s “not as murky as it was then,”

Being the only woman had some advantages, Northcutt admitted.

“I got a lot of attention at the time, and even more attention now, 50 years later,” she said.

Recently, Northcutt got a call from the Brazilian consulate in Houston, where she lives. She left TRW in 1984 to become an attorney and a civil rights advocate. During the Apollo missions, a little girl in Brazil was inspired by Northcutt and eventually grew up to become Dr. Rosaly M.C. Lopes, a senior research scientist at JPL and the editor-in-chief for the planetary science journal Icarus.

As a pre-teen in Rio de Janeiro, “I grew up crazy about the Apollo program,” Lopes recalled. “Being Brazilian and a girl with terrible eyesight, I was not going to make it as an astronaut. Every time I saw anything about the Apollo program, it was all men.”

Northcutt had helped to calculate the trajectory of the problem-plagued Apollo 13 mission. Lopes clipped small articles about her appearing in two Brazilian newspapers. “I became so inspired,” Lopes said.

Although those articles have long been lost, and Lopes remembers them as being sexist, Lopes searched for Northcutt over the years because Northcutt was “like a beacon.”

A casual conversation with a writer brought the two into contact and Northcutt will meet with Lopes this month at JPL. Northcutt noted one of the reasons she left TRW was budget cuts. The race to the moon was won, but society had changed.

Part Three of “Chasing the Moon,” “Magnificent Desolation,” takes its title from Buzz Aldrin as both his description of the lunar surface and the title of his second autobiography. After Apollo 11, the astronauts were no longer heroes. During his public relations tours, Frank Borman (Apollo 8 and Gemini 7) recalled going to Cornell campus was “like going into an enemy camp.” Protests against Vietnam labeled [President] Nixon a war criminal, but there were also some questionable figures working at NASA such as ex-SS officer Wernher von Braun.

While most of the action for Apollo 11 was away from the Pasadena area, JPL did have a role leading up to the Apollo program. JPL developed two robotic series of spacecraft: the Rangers and the Surveyors. The Rangers were like the safety crash test part of the moon landing program. The Rangers were meant to intentionally collide into the moon and provide images of the surface and the approaching impact. Ranger 7 was the first to work properly, hitting the moon on July 31, 1964. Two more would evemtually reach the moon.

The seven robotic Surveyors were “soft landers” and the first vehicles to operate on the moon. They provided information about the strength and composition of the lunar surface (1966-68). Apollo 12 astronauts brought back Surveyor 3’s camera in 1969. The information from these two spacecraft series helped the Eagle land. Once the Eagle that landed on the moon returned to Earth, Caltech raced to analyze the lunar samples and answer questions about the moon’s composition for scientists and researchers around the world.

JPL and Caltech will be hosting two free panels. JPL documentarian Blaine Baggett will speak on the Ranger and Surveyor missions, former JPL Chief Scientist Arden Albee will talk about lunar samples, and former JPL Chief Engineer John Casani will talk about JPL and Caltech’s role in supporting the lunar landing. Moderated by JPL Science Communications Specialist Preston Dyches, the free 90-minute lectures, “Moon Struck! Celebrating Apollo’s 50th Anniversary,” are at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 11 at The Von Kármán Auditorium at JPL (4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena) and at 7 p.m. Friday, July 12, at Caltech’s Ramo Auditorium (1200 E. California Blvd. Pasadena). No reservations or tickets are required.

On Monday, July 15, the California Science Center will open a special giant-screen edition of Todd Douglas Miller’s “Apollo 11” documentary on the immersive 7-story IMAX screen. The center will host a special day-long event on July 20, with exhibits of Gemini and Apollo space capsules, Apollo era space suits, a Ranger space craft and a lunar sample.  JPL will be onsite with a custom portable planetarium, a special live, interactive and immersive presentation about space science complete with an expert to answer questions. For more information, visit

Now, as the 50th anniversary logo signifies by including the moon and Mars, NASA astronauts will return to the moon but in preparation for a trip to Mars. The first woman and the next man are scheduled to make a moon landing in 2024. JPL, with its Rover program, has already been paving the way and will be providing even more information about Mars with its Rover 2020.

PBS’s “Nova” premieres a five-part series, “The Planets,” on July 24 (Check local listings). A press preview of its Mars episode included JPL’s Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari, MSL Project Scientist Ashwin R. Vasavada and John P. Grotzinger, Caltech’s Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology.

By remembering the last Giant Leap, you can prepare for the Next Giant Leap from the moon to Mars and Pasadena will be an essential part of that exciting new chapter in space. n