1 Moon, 50 years and 5,000 rockets. An APR 40th Anniversary Reminder Presentation


Alabama Public Radio celebrates 40 years on the air in 2022. APR’s news team digs into our archives to bring you new airings of the best of our coverage. That includes this 2019 story. APR observed the fiftieth anniversary of the manned Apollo Eleven moon landing with a series of reports. APR student intern Jonathan Holle reported on an event in Huntsville to commemorate this “small step” to the moon.

Saturday (in 2019) was the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. The town of Huntsville spent the week remembering the Apollo 11 mission with a host of events celebrating scientific discovery, the Apollo era of space exploration and the ability of such things to inspire a nation. On Tuesday, NASA used lots of small rockets to remember the launch of a big one.

The scale of the Apollo 11 mission, tasked with carrying the first men to the moon, may seem like a far cry from a model rocket jumping 100 feet into the air. Perhaps such a rocket is not so impressive, especially for a group of world-class rocket scientists. How about we draw a few more? What if we multiplied a small rocket by 5,000?

“We have 50 frames with 100 rockets each configured in five giant round circles,” Robin Soprano said.

She runs Space Camp in Huntsville. We stand with her in a wet field, surrounded by model rockets – a bunch of them. Soprano explained the significance of those circles of wooden frames where the rockets stand like marching soldiers.

“These circles are our symbolic F-1 engines of the Saturn V rocket,” she said. “So at 8:32 a.m. we’re going to press the button and simultaneously all 5,000 rockets are going to be launched.”

Rocketeers during the planned launch of 5,000 rockets on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the liftoff of Apollo 11.

The goal is to set a new world record for the most model rockets launched at least 100 feet into the air. Guinness World Record Organization officials will be watching closely. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Weeks of planning and preparation went into this record attempt. About a month before launch day, we caught up with some of the people behind this company. Besides breaking the record, there’s a special audience they hope to reach.

“One of the integral parts of the training experience here at Space Camp is being able to build and launch your own rocket,” said Tara Sweeney, camp vice president. “It’s that first feeling of confidence that ‘I can understand the instructions so that I can then launch something from the ground. “”

Not too long ago, Sweeney was the wide-eyed space camper building her own model rocket.

“I actually flew in from New Jersey at the time and was so excited to start training for my own dream as an astronaut. And this amazing place, after just six days, I m allowed me to walk away from here with the certainty that I was going to leave and start achieving the goals that I had previously set for myself,” Sweeney said.

“The 5,000 rockets are going to be inspiring; that’s a lot of rockets to take off all at once,” said NASA engineer Craig Sumner. “I understand they are all connected to launch at the same time and it will fill the skies with inspiration for young people across the country.”

A look at Sumner’s resume might have you wondering why launching a bunch of model rockets is so important. He worked on the Lunar Rover Vehicle, which was a kind of dune buggy that astronauts drove to the moon in the last three Apollo missions. He also flew fighter jets during the Vietnam War, and now he’s helping Boeing build NASA’s next-generation rocket for trips to the moon or Mars. It’s called the Space Launch System, but what it lacks in creativity, it more than makes up for in greatness. When completed, it will be the most powerful rocket in NASA history. Despite his impressive career in the field of rocket science, Sumner places great importance on small Space Camp projects like model rockets.


The commemorative banner for the planned launch of 5,000 model rockets on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the liftoff of Apollo 11.

“I sent my son to Space Camp … 29 years ago only to find him starting to work in the systems engineering aspect of the new space launch system,” Sumner said. “And he’s at Boeing and having a great time, but I think it all started here at Space Camp.”

A project like this needs one more thing than engineering and teamwork, and that’s organization.

“So I was put on the record attempt team from the start,” said Randall Robinson, who was assigned to speak to Guinness. He determined the exact specifications NASA had to follow for building each rocket, the altitude each rocket had to reach, and how they had to be launched.

“Dr. Barnhart and some of his associates decided they wanted to set a world record and my name came up as someone who helped get things done,” he said.

At the other end of this mission was Soprano.

“It’s really a goal that was set by our CEO, Dr. Deborah Barnhart, and as we geared up for this celebration of Apollo this summer,” Soprano said. “She had the idea that we were going to launch 5,000 rockets, and I think everyone was like, ‘What?'”

Nevertheless, they persisted.

Between them, Soprano and Randall designed and coordinated the project with the help of a handful of volunteers.

“With the kids who had built them in the past, they had no consistency in the assembly process. They didn’t have the quality control, they didn’t have the setup in a controlled environment,” Soprano said. “I have an industrial engineering background, so my mind was kind of ‘OK, we need an assembly line,’ and so we put it together and we really start building rockets.”

It’s a beautiful morning at One Tranquility Base. The birds are singing, the sun is shining and 5,000 rockets are about to be launched into the sky. Rockets are launched from 50 pallets, which each contain 100 rockets. Each group of 10 paddles is wired to one of five controllers, and all five controllers are wired to the big red button.

Hundreds of NASA fans are eagerly waiting, but in many ways the celebration has already begun. Because even if the launch fails, even if the short circuits or the explosives go off, NASA has already done what it needed to do through the effort of it all. They’re not just there to win, they’re there to inspire, and they know they’ve already won.


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