Sharon Robles still remembers the calendar that brought joy and excitement to her otherwise stoic grandmother.

“Grandma thought so much of this that she wrote it down and saved it,” Robles, 49, of San Benito said Wednesday. “That’s what made it so special for me, not only the moment but also that my grandmother documented this and saved it. It made me feel closer to her.”

That calendar chronicles the dates Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong launched from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida and landed on the moon, where a captivated nation watched mankind take “one giant leap” on July 20, 1969.

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary, and a lifetime of memories for Robles, who although didn’t see it on TV with the rest of the country that day, lived vicariously through the stories of her grandmother.

Robles described her grandmother as a “hard woman” who rarely showed excitement or emotion, but rejoiced and documented the significance of a group of Americans landing on the moon.

Notes in her family’s calendar are written in Spanish and serves as a tangible document of the memory of her grandmother who lived through this time.

For retired astronaut Michael Fossum, he was 11-years-old during the moon landing and recalls the moment vividly. He watched it on television “in wonder,” and he went out to his backyard to look up at the moon.

“I remember just this disbelief, that we really did it, and even as I was looking up at that moon, there were two Americans up there, taking the first steps, and just what a profound thing that was,” Fossum said. “As much as it was a technological achievement, I think it was just a victory for (the) human spirit.”

Fossum grew up in McAllen, and although he said he was too young to understand the political atmosphere surrounding the moon landings, it provided an inspiration for his future career.

Retired astronaut Michael E. Fossum

The local astronaut has logged over 194 days in space and retired from NASA in 2017. He currently serves as chief operating officer and vice president of the Galveston campus of Texas A&M university.

Americans have a history of being “pioneers” as they explored westward and made a life for themselves, Fossum said.

“Landing on the moon to me represented that same kind of pioneering spirit of going where nobody has been before to discover new things,” Fossum said.

Although NASA discontinued its program to send men to the moon in 1972, the general public have expressed interest in space and value to future ventures on the moon.

“I would like to see us go back, see if we can establish a base there, similar to what we’ve done in Antarctica,” Fossum said.

The discoveries made in space all go back to solving issues and improve conditions for people on Earth, Fossum said.

A little history

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite in space during the height of the Cold War. This launched what’s commonly referred to as the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in a politically divided world following the end of World War II.

The 1960s saw the assassination of the Kennedys, escalation of American involvment in Vietnam, and political shifts across the globe. The Saturn V rocket first brought American astronauts to the moon in July 1969, with a total of 12 Americans astronauts landing on the moon through the Apollo program until 1972.

For some, this is seen as a political and cultural victory for the U.S. over its rival superpower.

Educational impact

Teaching the next generation to be involved in science and understanding the context of history and how it relates to modern society are two draws that emerged because of America’s successful lunar missions.

Interests in science and math also played a huge role as it was like a “Manhattan Project scale effort” to miniaturize computers in a time when they were so large they took up a whole room, Fossum said. Critical technologies were developed toward the Apollo 11 mission and the following years.

The space program opened the doors for computers to develop computers for both government and private use.

The significance also inspired many to go into the technical and scientific fields.

“To study sciences, to go into engineering, to go into all manner of things, it was almost a national imperative that you encourage people to do that,” Fossum said.

Although other fields are also important for society, the technology and scientific studies should be encouraged, he said.

The 50th anniversary also coincided with local educators in providing students a hands-on approach to learning about history.

To such an end, the Sharyland High School History Department recently undertook a collaboration with the Mission Historical Museum for “Space Race Rocket Triad” exhibit.

Sharyland High School social studies teacher Roberto Barbosa had his students create three 8-foot scaled models, made of wood, cardboard and paper mache to represent three spacecraft in his special topics in social studies class.

These spacecrafts were based on rockets that signified the progress of American technology for space travel. Models for Mercury-Redstone, which put the first Americans in space, Titan II, which allowed for logistical operations to fly to the moon and Saturn V, which ultimately brought American astronauts to the moon’s surface, were the subjects of the replicas.

This was part of the special topic class for Barbosa, who stressed the need of learning history and context.

Barbosa said there may be a “resurgence” in interest in the sciences around the time of this commemoration of the moon landing, with nations competing against each other.

The development of technology is a major outcome of the event, many of which relate to modern society, he said.

“The space race wasn’t just beating the Soviets and getting to the moon, it’s about the other things that came out of it… all the other innovations that because the government was spending so much money on its space exploration, they were also getting so many things back from things they needed to develop in order to get to space, but also contribute to human life,” Barbosa said.

Velcro and the microwave are among these, he said.

This topic also allowed for students to learn skills professional historians use: research and analysis. However, it also helped students become interested in different fields and enable a hands-on learning experience.

“It was just one event in the 60s, but it really had a profound impact because it continued space exploration, but also made so much other technology available to humans,” Barbosa said.

The exhibit also shows a video to encompass the achievements of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Two of his students demonstrated their knowledge and dedication through the long-term project, starting in August and lasting until May.

“It was an amazing product, knowing that this (Saturn V) was the first rocket that had people land on the moon, it wasn’t just an accomplishment for the United States, Ivanna Frias said, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Sharyland High School. Having to do things by hand made it more memorable, she said.

Everyday students worked on the project over time, researching, painting and finding photos of the rockets, emphasizing teamwork with his fellow students, Jose Cubaque, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Sharyland High School said.

“I feel like technology is just starting up and it’s just building and building,” Cubaque said.

Both students relayed Barbosa’s drive to teach and instill a passion for learning.

For some academics in higher education, the anniversary also shows how far the sciences have come.

Associate professor Volker Quetschke of UTRGV’s Department of Physics and Astronomy said he grew up during the aftermath of the landmark day. The 49-year-old scientist, who was born a year after the landing, said it laid a significant influence in developing research in physics and other sciences.

“Space is becoming interesting and hip again… to me it feels like there’s a lot of new stuff is happening with space science,” Quetschke said.

With SpaceX’s presence at Boca Chica Beach, it also brings an entrepreneurial aspect, Quetschke said.

Regional implications

Photo by Delcia Lopez/dlopez@themonitor.com

The Valley is also home to ventures into space through collaboration between public and private entities.

UTRGV and SpaceX partnered for Spacecraft Tracking and Astronomical Research into Gigahertz Astrophysical Transient Emission, or STARGATE. The $2.2 million STARGATE Technology Center opened in March east of Brownsville. Industry mentorship, developing technology and research are all part of STARGATE’s goals, according to the university’s website.

A national effort in space exploration may also provide the solution to address local problems, Fossum said.

Food insecurity and access to nutritious meals is an issue in Hidalgo County and throughout the Valley, as diabetes and obesity are prevalent in the region.

Increasing nutritional content of calories in food are potential outcomes of such research, Fossum said. Space discovery and exploration can be a potential solution to solving this problem.

For instance, studies are conducted on astronauts in space, as their nutritional diet is recording in “excruciating details,” Fossum said.

Hidalgo, Starr, Cameron and Willacy counties are all above the state trend in child food insecurity, according to the Texas Hunger Initiative.

Americans can take pride in taking the first man to the moon in search of inspiration, Fossum said. The retired astronaut also noted that as someone who grew up in the Valley, others could also follow and realise their aspirations.

“My hope is that they will see some glimmer of future greatness with an idea of something huge and audacious that they want to be a part of, because that dream was central and was absolutely essential for me to cling to and drive toward,” Fossum said.

Related links

EDITORIAL: Next horizon: Valley can help dreams extend beyond the moon

COMMENTARY: The men of Apollo 11