OKEECHOBEE — Fifty years ago on July 24 astronauts aboard Apollo 11 returned to Earth by splashing down in the north Pacific Ocean after becoming the first human beings to walk to the surface of the Moon.
It’s estimated that over 600 million people across the globe watched the events of the Apollo 11 mission, from the lift-off that happened 80 miles north of Okeechobee at Cape Canaveral to Neil Armstrong taking his first step onto the lunar surface.
Okeechobee County Commissioner Bryant Culpepper was one of the many who made the trip to Cape Canaveral in 1969 to watch the Saturn V rocket take off from the Kennedy Space Center.
“I remember that like it happened yesterday,” said Commissioner Culpepper of the Apollo 11 launch. “Every time they had a big launch, my family would jump in the old ’49 Mercury wagon to go watch it. When you’re there you actually feel the concussion and the ground shaking from the Atlas booster going off. It was unbelievable. That sound and that feeling will be with me the rest of my life.”
Commissioner Culpepper was 20 years old when the Apollo mission launched and says that throughout his life he has always tried follow and keep up with what missions NASA was working on.
“What blew me away at the time is how mankind could go from the first flight in 1903 to landing on the Moon in 1969,” explained Commissioner Culpepper. “I couldn’t conceive of that as a young person, it was stunning to me. We take it for granted now, but to imagine people actually walking on the Moon was almost inconceivable. It was exciting to be able to live through that time period.”
Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford also remembers the Apollo 11 mission well.
“The Moon landing was one of those ‘I remember exactly where I was’ moments,” Mayor Watford said. “Everyone was glued to our black and white TVs with great anticipation and excitement. It was a great moment when we heard the words ‘the eagle has landed’ and then ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ We knew then the mission was a success and we had beat the Russians to the Moon.”
Currently NASA has plans to return to the Moon in 2024 under a program they’ve named ‘Artemis.’ In Greek mythology Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo.
NASA has announced the goal of the program is to land the first woman and the next man on the lunar south pole region. The hope is that the Artemis program will be the first step towards the long-term goal of establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon.
“I think seeing something like that light up the sky pushed a lot of kids to go into scientific fields,” said Commissioner Culpepper of the NASA launches. “We’ve kind of lost that now. Kids today are not getting that motivation to be able to drive themselves to a profession that has so much impact on the world.”