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Huntsville celebrates Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary, looks to create next ‘giant leap’ — ‘Alabama is clearly in the lead, and we’re going to stay there’

HUNTSVILLE — A sea of people packed out the Davidson Center for Space Exploration at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center on Tuesday evening to celebrate the Rocket City’s past, present and future leadership in the space industry.

Among the crowd at the Apollo 11 50th anniversary dinner were famed astronauts and local and state officials.

However, with a scaled-down Saturn V rocket replica standing immediately beside the stage and the famed full-size replica Saturn V looming over the building, it was the behind-the-scenes work of scientists, techs and engineers that drew special praise throughout the evening.

Many of these unsung individuals were in attendance, and the enormous crowd gave them a resounding standing ovation for their innovation and dedication during the Space Race in the 1960s that made it possible for Apollo 11 to experience a perfect launch on July 16, 1969, and then land on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Fifty years to the day from that launch, which was powered by the Huntsville-built Saturn V, all three of Dr. Wernher von Braun’s children were in attendance on Tuesday. He, of course, led the team of innovators in Huntsville that made Apollo 11 possible.

Dr. Deborah Barnhart, CEO of the Space and Rocket Center and 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact, served as the master of ceremonies for the evening.

She called Tuesday “the best day” of her life, thanking all of the individuals who made the momentous anniversary possible.

Following her opening remarks was Hal Brewer, co-founder and president of Huntsville’s INTUITIVE Research and Technology, who explained that he grew up in the Rocket City during the 1960s.

“I will certainly never forget watching the television in 1969 as the United States became the first country to land on the Moon,” he said. “I’ll never forget the awe, the excitement and the many questions I had surrounding that day. Those many questions — the one that grew in my mind was, ‘How? How had we been able to accomplish the unthinkable?’ Behind those famous first steps there was a group of engineers, technicians and scientists that designed, developed and tested the Saturn V rocket that launched into space. … This 300-foot engineering marvel sent man traveling at [almost] 25,000 miles per hour to the Moon, 240,000 miles away, and safely back.”

In later comments, Barnhart recounted that people were dancing in the streets of Huntsville after Apollo 11 successfully completed its mission in 1969.

Speaking of the Space Launch System (SLS), which is under development at Marshall Space Flight Center and slated to be NASA’s most powerful rocket ever, Barnhart quipped that Huntsville will be dancing again when its innovation powers Americans back to the surface of the Moon as part of the Artemis program.

Jody Singer (an Alabamian, 2019 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact and the first female to ever lead Marshall Space Flight Center) took to the stage and reinforced this. In fact, on the side of the stage opposite from the replica Saturn V towered a model version of the SLS.

Singer advised that SLS will allow for “the next giant leap” in human space exploration.

“From launch to landing, it’s coming through Huntsville, Alabama,” she emphasized, after sharing that Apollo 11 inspired her to pursue a career in the space industry.

“So just like Apollo inspired a generation, we will inspire the next generation through the Artemis program,” Singer added.

Not only will Artemis put the first woman on the surface of the Moon and help establish a sustainable American lunar presence, but the Alabama-driven program will also open the door for the first human trip to Mars — and beyond.

“I am confident, that in 50 years from now, we’ll be talking all about Space Launch System, what has happened in Huntsville [with Artemis] and how we’re [still] going forward… with the same awe that we hold today for Apollo 11 and the pride that we’re celebrating tonight,” she concluded.

Dr. Margrit von Braun, daughter of the space legend, is herself an environmental engineer who has dedicated her life to scientific pursuits. She delivered an impassioned address to the crowd on Tuesday, talking about journeying from “dreams to reality.”

Referencing Barnhart’s earlier comments, von Braun concluded her speech by saying, “Get your dancing slippers ready.”

‘We are celebrating the American spirit’

Governor Kay Ivey delivered an energetic keynote speech at the dinner on Tuesday, also touting Alabama’s historic role in Apollo 11’s success while emphasizing that the best is yet to come.

Speaking of the tumultuous time in American history in which the Space Race unfolded, Ivey took the crowd “down memory lane,” reminiscing on how many people doubted that President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to send man to the Moon within a decade could be accomplished.

“Now ladies and gentlemen,” Ivey continued in trademark fashion. “We are here tonight to celebrate that accomplishment and the significant role that Alabama has played in making this dream a reality.”

“As we have often done, Alabamians responded [to the challenge] by doing what we do best,” she explained. “We put our heads together, and we began working for a cause that is bigger than ourselves. So, as we celebrate this 50th anniversary of the Moon launch, we are celebrating the American spirit — and we are also celebrating the importance of collaboration.”

Speaking of the team of innovators led by Dr. von Braun, Ivey praised the development of Saturn V in Huntsville.

“It’s a good reminder that Americans — Alabamians — can accomplish just about anything when we put our mind to it,” Ivey stressed.

She said this type of “ingenuity and greatness of the people of our state” is fittingly celebrated as Alabama commemorates its bicentennial.

The governor added, “And just as we recognize the richness of our past, we must always be looking forward to new opportunities and new challenges. President Trump has issued his own challenge for us to return to the Moon and then eventually on to Mars.”

“While the possibility of going to Mars might seem unachievable to some people, remember: at one point in time so did landing on the Moon,” Ivey continued. “It’s good to know that Alabama and Alabamians will once again be at the launchpad for this new space frontier.”

This reflected sentiments Ivey recently expressed to Yellowhammer News in an exclusive interview.

She expressed optimism that the resurgence in national prioritization of human space exploration under the Trump administration will mean bright days for Alabama, highlighting how private and public entities in the state are at the forefront of various space initiatives.

“You’ve got ULA (United Launch Alliance) that’s building their new Vulcan [Centaur] rocket, and Marshall Space Flight Center is leading NASA’s effort [with SLS],” she said. “So, I think Alabama is clearly in the lead — and we’re going to stay there.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn