For 79-year-old Joe Waters of north Eugene, the most memorable moment of the eight-day Apollo 11 mission occurred when the space capsule returned from its historic trip to the moon on July 24, 1969.
He watched in awe in the early morning hours from the deck of a ship as the capsule blazed back into the Earth’s atmosphere, knowing he would never see anything like it again.
The heat shield of its reentry formed a striking, bright angle around the space capsule as it streaked across the sky, he recalled. It was about 4:30 a.m., and yet Waters was surrounded on the deck by upwards of 2,000 people who all stood wide awake and open-mouthed.
“As the vehicle was going toward the horizon in the east, the sun was also rising up in the east, and you had this juxtaposition of these two — one natural and one man made — they seemed to be on a collision course with each other,” he said. “It was really, in addition to being an historical moment, kind of a dramatic moment as well. It was literally just a once in a lifetime, once in a historical moment.”
With longstanding memories from Eugene residents such as Waters, events for all ages to celebrate, and Oregon’s historical influence on the mission newly on-display, this anniversary is reigniting the excitement many felt in 1969 for a weeklong celebration for Oregonians.
The day Waters saw the spacecraft reenter the atmosphere, he was employed as an electronics technician working on the USNS Redstone.
“It was used as a (missile) range instrumentation ship,” Waters said. “What they would do is they would go out to a particular site assigned by NASA and it would track the astronauts and the space vehicle.”
The ship was about 300 miles south-southwest of Guam that day. He and the others working on the ship heard there was a very good chance of them seeing the space capsule as it came back toward Earth. As they all gathered on the deck, one person quietly said, “There it is” as the capsule came into view.
“The sea state was really very calm, almost glassy,” Waters said. “It was in the predawn hours around 4:30 in the morning, and we could look up and see this thing just beginning to speckle like a campfire ember coursing through the heavens.”
It was unlike anything Waters had ever seen, or would see again. Because while we may put man on the moon again, the wonder of seeing it successfully happen for the first time is unmatched.
“The unique thing about it, among other things, was when this event was over and the space capsule just kept going across the horizon, nobody said anything,” Waters said. “What could you say?”
While individuals such as Waters played a role in the landing, the state of Oregon also gave important insight to astronauts as they prepared to take on the astronomical task.
Central Oregon’s rough and rocky terrain served as a fitting training ground for the astronauts to test their suits and learn to navigate the piles and stretches of lava rock they believed to be similar to the moon’s surface.
“They tested some of the space suits and space suit prototypes and some of the gear they were anticipating using on the moon on the lava rock in Central Oregon,” said Heidi Hagemeier, spokesperson for the High Desert Museum.
This month, the museum opened a new exhibit devoted to highlighting Central Oregon’s role in astronaut preparation for the moon landing, called “Moon Country: Oregon and the Space Race.”
There also is an opportunity for those looking to celebrate the anniversary in Eugene’s backyard this week. Eugene Science Center will have activities through Saturday.
The science center saw this as an opportunity to get people of all ages involved and excited about a memorable anniversary of space travel success.
“This was a monumental moment in history, and we’re really excited to celebrate that but also recognize how far science has come in the last 50 years,” said center spokesperson Elena Aguero. For those such as Waters, it’s surreal to realize it has already been 50 years since one of the most noteworthy moments in science history.
Having lived through each of the moments when the Apollo 11 mission got one step closer to the moon, and to see it return home safely, he said, is an experience and event different from anything that came before it or after.
“I was stunned. I had witnessed something that was a once in a millennia occurrence.
“It’s not uncommon to look up in the early days of space exploration and view satellites particularly at either horizon … but this thing was altogether different from that,” Waters said.
“It is the memory of a lifetime.”