Loren Acton remembers well the day 50 years ago when the first men walked on the moon.

Like millions of people around the world, Acton watched live black-and-white television images as American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

It was “the ultimate cliff hanger,” said Acton.

“I just assumed it was going to work,” he said of the landing. “I had no idea how close those guys were to disaster or having to abort.”

When the spacecraft touched down on the moon, he learned later, their maneuvering fuel was down to a few seconds of an empty tank.

Acton, now 83 and retired as a Montana State University physics professor, got to fly in space himself for eight days in 1985. He was an experimental solar astronomer aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, orbiting the Earth 16 years after Apollo 11.

Bozeman’s only astronaut will speak at two events in Bozeman next Saturday to celebrate the moon walk’s 50th anniversary and consider its impact today.

“I’ve always thought the Apollo program showed us at our best,” Acton said. “It seemed like … pretty much everybody was pulling together.”

Asked if humans should return to the moon, Acton said the answer depends on your values.

“If you’re only interested in learning stuff about the universe, robots do a very good job. Humans are a problem – you’ve got to keep them alive,” Acton said. But for human beings, he said, “This adventure is nourishing to the spirit.

“I think things like Apollo and the International Space Station represent adventures we do as a society that can better us.”

Successfully sending men to the moon “really defined how we think of ourselves as Americans,” said Angela Des Jardins. “If we work hard and are tenacious, we can do anything.”

Des Jardins, an assistant research professor in physics, directs the Montana Space Grant Consortium educational program and Montana NASA EPSCoR research program at MSU.

Reaching the moon within seven years of President John Kennedy’s speech setting that national goal became a catalyst, driving innovations in materials and computers.

“It was an amazing, astounding feat of science and engineering,” Des Jardins said. “If you took that away ... we would be in a very backward place.”

She is excited that MSU scientist Brock LaMeres is leading one of 12 research projects NASA chose this month to help send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024, to prepare for sending humans to Mars. LaMeres is investigating ways to make computers tolerate the harsh space radiation that can damage computers.

Young people are still excited about space, Des Jardins said. MSU students have sent instruments on high-altitude balloons to the edge of space, and 200 Montana middle and high school students will gather this week at Canyon Ferry Lake for rover and drone competitions and to celebrate the lunar landing.

Like today’s students, Eric Loberg wasn’t born yet when the Apollo program sent a dozen astronauts to walk on the moon between 1969 and 1972. Loberg, 41, is director of Taylor Planetarium at the Museum of the Rockies.

In honor of the moon landing anniversary, Taylor Planetarium is showing the half-hour documentary “Capcom-Go!” three times a day. Free with museum admission, the documentary explains the challenges Apollo had to be overcome, gives a feeling for what it was like when the Saturn V rocket thundered into space and when Armstrong navigated the moon landing, and stresses that thousands of people worked to make the landing succeed. The museum also has a small replica of the plaque the Apollo 11 astronauts left on the moon.

“It’s one of my great disappointments I wasn’t alive then,” Loberg said. Only four of the 12 moon-walking astronauts are still alive, which he finds sad. “I’m hoping we get back to the moon.”

Lynn Powers agrees. She was about 10 years old when her family gathered around the TV to watch the landing.

“I have been in awe of all this stuff for a lot of years,” said Powers, secretary for the Bridger Charter Program at Bozeman High and president of the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society.

Powers remembers looking up at the moon then and thinking, “Oh my gosh, there’s people up there!”

She has brought moon rocks from Johnson Space Center to share with students, and hopes to do so again in August. In 2013 she got to meet one of her heroes, Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, when he spoke to an assembly of appreciative Bozeman High students. She pointed out that only one of the men who walked on the moon was a scientist, a geologist, and suggests that needs to be corrected.

“We’ve always been explorers,” Powers said. “There is so much more we need to know about the moon.”

The American Computer Museum plans several events next Saturday to celebrate the moon landing. It will give tours of its permanent Men on the Moon exhibit starting at 10 a.m.

“It was a dangerous enterprise, an audacious goal,” said Eleanor Barker, museum director. “That makes it more thrilling.”

The computer museum’s display has a watch worn on the moon by astronaut David Scott.

Its exhibits also show how Apollo fueled the miniaturization of computers, shrinking the UNIVAC main frame, as big as three refrigerators, down to the size of a small suitcase that fit inside the space capsule.

Miniaturization — and Apollo’s invention of the first computer keyboard – have had a huge impact on today’s world and development of desktop, laptop and smartphone computers.

Speakers at the computer museum will include Acton at 10:30 a.m., retired physicist Ken Nordtvedt, who worked on Apollo navigation and guidance systems, at 11:30 a.m.; MSU scientist John Sample at 1 p.m.; and space flight engineer Robert Gunderson. Visitors can also try out NASA-designed kite and flight kits. Admission to the American Computer Museum, 2023 Stadium Dr., is free.

Barker said it’s amazing that a small community like Bozeman has so many people engaged with Apollo and NASA. Nordtvedt, she said, helped design a laser experiment with mirrors that Armstrong set out on the moon to measure continuously the exact distance to the Earth, and it is still delivering data today.

“The Apollo program and placing humans on the moon is one of the defining events of human history, like circumnavigating the globe,” Barker said.

The Bozeman Public Library will hold a Moon Launch Anniversary Party next Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to wear 1960s retro or space-themed outfits. Rob Maher, MSU professor of electrical and computer engineering, will speak at 1 p.m., on the history of Apollo 11.

The Montana Science Center, 202 S. Willson Ave., will also hold a Moon Landing Party next Saturday. Acton will speak at 11:30 a.m., and there will be a moon photo booth and space science activities and treats for kids.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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