Almost 50 years ago, 650 million people around the world gathered around their television sets and watched, breathless, as Apollo 11 touched down and astronaut Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for all mankind.
Armstrong and his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin became the founders of a very exclusive club, one that even today has only 12 members: people who have walked on the Moon.
In the days leading up to July 20, the official 50th anniversary of the first Moon Landing, events in Lodi, Stockton and beyond will celebrate the historic moment.
The festivities kicked off with a special star-gazing event Friday night at Lodi Lake, but for those who missed it, there’s an even bigger bash at Oak Grove Regional Park tonight.
Douglas Christensen, the public information officer for the Stockton Astronomical Society, remembers watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon as an 8-year-old boy. He remembers that everyone was glued to their TVs.
“It was quite an experience,” he said. “It was big. It’s the biggest thing that mankind has ever done.”
There have been other big advances, but none were as incredible — or as watchable — as the Moon Landing, he said.
“This was audacious,” he said.
The Stockton Astronomical Society teams up with the Oak Grove Docents Council once a month for Astronomy at the Park. But this month’s star party is special, even if it is a week early due to the late moonrise on July 20.
The guest of honor will be NASA scientist Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith, who will give a presentation starting at 6 p.m. There will also be solar telescope viewing at this time, along with food trucks.
There will be a collection of activities, including a giant, blown-up photo of astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, his visor replaced with a hole so visitors can stand behind and get their photo “on the Moon.”
At 8:30 p.m., visitors will be able to view the night sky through a variety of telescopes shared by SAS members — Christensen is expecting at least a dozen volunteers to show up, telescopes in tow, and maybe more.
The Moon should be visible early, but he encourages guests to plan to hang around later into the night.
“The darker it gets, the better it gets,” he said.
Christensen had a few tips and requests for those who plan to come out and party. First, the mosquitoes at Oak Grove are bad right now, so wear long sleeves, pants and plenty of DEET. Second, closed shoes are a must, not just because of the mosquitoes but also because of goose droppings.
“Please do not bring bright flashlights,” he said. “The more white light you throw at people’s faces, the less everybody can see.”
Instead, if visitors have dimmer or red-light flashlights, those are the best to bring. If not, bring whatever flashlight is available, but be sure to keep it pointed at the ground and off whenever it’s not in use.
Glow sticks can also interfere with viewing the stars, he said.
On the actual anniversary — July 20 — the World of Wonders Science Museum will pick up the celebration.
The museum in Downtown Lodi will rebroadcast the historic video of the Moon Landing and Armstrong’s first moon walk, an astrophysics major from UC Berkeley will lead “Lunar School” classes, and there will be a selection of space-themed activities developed by NASA science educators.
But the stars of the Moon-themed party will be the StarLab and a brand-new exhibit that lets guests take their very own moon walk.
“Our new exhibit is huge. It’s 26 feet long, and you get to feel what it would be like to walk on the Moon,” said Jen Young, program director at the WOW Science Museum.
It works with a harness and a system of counterweights. Since lower gravity on the Moon means you weigh about one-sixth what you would on Earth, the pulley system is set up to make you feel five-sixths lighter.
“We do have play astronaut helmets, too, to really feel like you’re on the Moon,” Young said.
The StarLab will be set up inside the museum’s classroom area. The giant dome is pitch black inside, and operators use a projector to share images of the night sky.
“We talk about some of the summer constellations and things that kids can just go out and see at night,” Young said.
There will also be astronaut ice cream — a popular item — and special 50th anniversary Apollo 11 T-shirts for sale in the museum’s gift shop.
The WOW staff hope it will be a fitting tribute to the work of the NASA scientists, engineers, computer programmers, astronauts and others who captured the world’s imagination in 1969.
“This is a historic occasion — 50 years since we landed on the Moon!” Young said.