Greeley resident remembers watching Apollo 11 launch with thousands of others in Florida
A Greeley resident who witnessed the Apollo 11 launch hopes this week’s 50th anniversary celebrations will re-spark a national interest in space exploration, the kind that brought him and thousands others to watch the launch in Florida 50 years ago.
U.S. Air Force Col. (Ret.) Bob Stack of Greeley was stationed at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida when a free Miami vacation someone won through a contest found its way to Stack’s family, who gave the trip to Stack and his wife, Mary. Stack, a lifetime space enthusiast, realized they could stop and watch the Apollo 11 launch on their way to Miami.
The Stacks, then 25, arrived the day before the launch, pulling into a large sandy area sitting across the Banana River from the Kennedy Space Station. Despite the thousands of people there ready to watch the launch, Stack found a spot right on the water.
“The stars aligned,” he said.
Stack tried catching some sleep on the hood of his 1967 Chevrolet Impala while his wife slept inside. With all the excitement in the air, they got maybe an hour of sleep. Across the river, the launch tower was lit up like “this big pencil,” Stack said.
“Look at what we were doing,” Stack said. “That’s something that humans had watched for eons, and now we were going to put humans there.”
At 9:32 a.m. ET July 16, 1969, the Saturn V rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. The Stacks watched from the hood of their car, right on the water.
“We all came together as one set of eyes; we all watched the smoke, the flame,” Stack said. “We watched this sun with a projection on the top just lift up into the sky, and you’ve got the contrail. And then it was over. Or, really, it was just beginning.”
Stack and his wife then made their way to Miami, where they watched in a hotel as Armstrong became the first man on the moon.
Stack said the experience solidified his feelings about going into space. He went on to become one of 12 finalists in the Teacher in Space project and has met astronauts including Aldrin, Collins and Eugene Cernan, the man who most recently stepped foot on the moon, at space conferences.
Thirty years later, one of the leading educators for NASA, who met Stack through the Teacher in Space project, gave him a 30th anniversary coin, containing metal from the Saturn V launch tower.
Stack said the scale of the accomplishment is even more stunning when thinking of the unnamed heroes whose work made the mission possible. A total of 400,000 people were involved. Stack said Charles Fishman’s book “One Giant Leap” spelled out the importance of each person doing their jobs correctly, including the women who sewed wires in the computers.
“We’re going to celebrate these three guys, but it’s all the unknown people behind the scenes, the worker bees, who really put together the clothing, the capsules, the engines, the math and the science that would make this happen,” he said. “And that’s where public education comes in.”
For Stack, there are three reasons space exploration is important: It fulfills and feeds a natural need in people to explore; it inspires public education to strive for excellence in math and science; and it lays the groundwork for military strength.
Looking ahead (and upward), Stack has three questions about the future of space exploration:
“When will we colonize the moon? Who is going to own the moon, or parts of it? Why not Mars?”
Eagle County Schools opens classes for around 6,800 public school students.