SALT LAKE CITY — Cyndy Carlton sat anxiously at her desk, eyes glued to the small black-and-white television set at the front of the classroom. Images of a rocket shined on the screen. Inside a small capsule on top of the Mercury-Redstone rocket sat Alan Shepard. He was to be America’s first man in space.
Like millions of people around the world, Carlton and her fellow third grade classmates stopped everything they were doing to watch the liftoff of Freedom 7 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961.
“It seemed so surreal to me,” recalled Carlton, now 66. “The mission only lasted 15 minutes, but I remember being worried about how tightly he had to be strapped into the capsule. It made me nervous to think about.”
Sixteen months later, President John F. Kennedy would challenge the country to “go to the moon in this decade” while standing at Rice University’s stadium in Houston, Texas. The timeline was set, and the space program accepted the challenge.
However, six years later, despite all the progress being made on achieving Kennedy’s goal, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed when a fire erupted inside their capsule during a dress rehearsal of the first Apollo mission launch.
“When I learned about the accident, I was traumatized for months,” Carlton recalled. “I was only 13 years old at the time, but I remember being so upset knowing three astronauts had died.”
Mark Carlton knocked on his journalist neighbor’s door, eager to invite him to do a news story about his homemade rocket. He’d learned about America’s goal to land a man on the moon in the next five years using large rockets and wanted to build a rocket of his own. Mark, like the whole world, was in a space frenzy. But the invitation from a 10-year-old kid wasn’t enough to convince the news reporter to cover the story.
“It was probably for the better,” said Carlton, now 65. “I had spent hours scraping the gray stuff off sparklers and putting it into a long, narrow tube. When we lit the rocket, it didn’t so much as move. I was sort of glad my news reporter neighbor hadn’t arrived with his camera.”
On July 20, 1969, Mark was among the estimated 650 million people who watched the televised image of Neil Armstrong on the moon and heard the words, “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” That giant leap inspired generations for years to come.
Now, 50 years later, there is a new timeline set to take people to the moon and beyond.
“President Donald Trump has asked NASA to accelerate our plans to return to the moon and to land humans on the surface again by 2024,” said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator. “This time, when we go to the moon, we will stay. And then we will use what we learn on the moon to take the next giant leap — sending astronauts to Mars.”
The Artemis program is slated to begin launching unmanned missions in 2020, with the first human flight taking place in 2024, according to NASA.
As the nation looks with excitement at the future of landing people on the moon once again, it helps to reflect — and visit — the historical places that show the initial journey to the moon. Here are some ways to experience what it was like to travel to the moon, without having to leave Earth's orbit.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Boston, Massachusettes)
Stand feet from the Freedom 7 capsule that carried Alan Shepherd into space at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. On the wall to the right of the capsule is a small TV playing a video clip from 1962 of Kennedy setting America’s timeline to the moon.
He said: "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral, Florida)
Every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission launched from historic Cape Canaveral. The Kennedy Space Center offers bus tours to historic sites like the Vehicle Assembly Building, historic launch pads, including launch complex 34 — the memorial site for the crew of Apollo 1 — and the spot where space shuttles were launched known as launch complex 39B.
Inside the Apollo/Saturn V Center, you can walk alongside a full-size Saturn V rocket. Learn about each of the Apollo missions to the moon — from Apollo 8 carrying the first humans around the moon, to the Apollo 17 mission marking the last time a human walked on the lunar surface.
Arlington National Cemetery (Washington, D.C.)
On Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts died on the launch pad during a dress rehearsal of a later Apollo launch. Two of the three astronauts, Grissom and Chaffee, are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Visitors can find their headstones among the thousands of other military men and women buried in Arlington. While there, you can visit the family gravesite of President John F. Kennedy, along with memorials to the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia disasters.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (Washington, D.C.)
The National Air and Space Museum brings the early space program to life. As you enter, stand beside a replica of the Apollo Lunar Module. Get a feeling of what it would’ve been like for Neil Armstrong as he stepped off the ladder and planted man’s first step on another celestial body.
Unfortunately, the National Air and Space Museum is undergoing a seven-year renovation. While some of the exhibits remain open, many of them are closed, thus limiting the number of space items on display. Nearby, the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, has the "50 Years from Tranquility Base" exhibit, highlighting America’s moon landing.
Space Center Houston (Houston, Texas)
“Houston, the Eagle has landed,” is the iconic phrase spoken by Neil Armstrong when his lunar module landed safely on the surface of the moon. Houston was the site of Mission Control. The moment the rockets launched from Florida, control was given to Mission Control in Houston to communicate with the astronauts and monitor the mission.
Experience the history of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions at Space Center Houston. Look inside the actual capsules that carried astronauts into space and around the moon. Learn about the evolution of the space suit, or take the NASA Tram Tour for a behind-the-scenes look at human spaceflight. Just this month, Space Center Houston opened a new exhibit: the Mission Control room as it existed in 1969 when humans landed on the moon for the first time.
Jason is a traveler and photographer, sharing his work at Carltonaut's Travel Tips. Whether he's traveling for business or pleasure, he finds ways to make the trip more affordable, more fun, and more memorable.