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1 Moon, 50 Years, and 5,000 Rockets. An APR 40th anniversary encore presentation

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APR
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Alabama Public Radio is celebrating forty years on the air in 2022. The APR news team is diving into our archives to bring you encore airings of the best of our coverage. That includes this story from 2019. APR observed the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo Eleven manned moon landing with a series of reports. APR student intern Jonathan Holle reported on an event in Huntsville to commemorate that “one small step” on the moon.

Saturday (in 2019) was the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing. The city of Huntsville spent the week remembering the Apollo 11 mission with a slew of events celebrating scientific discovery, the Apollo era of space exploration, and the capacity for such things to inspire a nation. On Tuesday NASA used a lot of little rockets were used to remember the launch of one big one.

The magnitude of the Apollo 11 mission, tasked with carrying the first men to the moon, may sound like a far cry from one model rocket jumping 100 feet in the air. Maybe one such rocket is not so impressive, especially for a group of world-class rocket scientists. But what if we shot off a few more? What if we multiplied one little 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’re standing with her in a wet field, surrounded by model rockets-- a bunch of them. Soprano explained the meaning behind these circles of wooden frames wherein 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 we’re going to press the button and simultaneously all 5,000 rockets are going to launch.”

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Rocketeers at the planned launch of 5,000 rockets on the fiftieth anniversary of the blastoff of Apollo 11.

The goal is to set a new world record for the most model rockets launched at least 100 feet in the air. Officials from The Guiness World Record Organization will be watching carefully. 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 met with some of the people behind this undertaking. Along with breaking the record, there’s a particular audience they hope to reach.

“One of the integral parts of the training experience here at Space Camp is to be able to build and launch their very own rocket,” said Tara Sweeney, the camp’s vice president. “It’s that first sense of confidence that ‘I can understand instructions in a way that I can then launch something off the earth.’”

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 I was just so excited to start training for my own astronaut dream. And this amazing place, after just six days, let me step away from here with a sense of confidence that I was going to go off and start achieving the goals I had previously set out for myself,” Sweeney said.

“The 5,000 rockets are going to be inspiring; that’s quite a few rockets to get off all at the same time,” NASA engineer Craig Sumner said. “I understand they’re all hooked up to be launched at the same moment and it will fill the sky with an inspiration to the young folks across the nation.”

A look at Sumner’s resume might leave you wondering why launching a bunch of model rockets is such a big deal. He worked on the Lunar Rover Vehicle, which was a kind of dune buggy that astronauts drove on the moon during 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 naming creativity, it more than makes up for in grandeur. When it’s finished it will be the most powerful rocket in NASA history. Despite his impressive career in actual rocket science, Sumner places great importance on little Space Camp projects like model rockets.

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

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

A project like this needs one thing even more than it needs engineering and team spirit, and that's organization.

“So I was brought in to the record attempt team from the very beginning,” said Randall Robinson, who was put in charge of talking to Guinness. He figured out the exact specifications NASA needed to follow on the build of each rocket, the altitude each rocket had to reach, and how they needed to be launched.

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jzw86rRreLI&feature=youtu.be

On the other end of this mission was Soprano.

“This is really a goal that was set by our CEO, Dr. Deborah Barnhart, and as we were preparing for this Apollo celebration this summer,” Soprano said. “She came up with this idea that we were going to launch 5,000 rockets, and I think everyone was sort of like, ‘What?’”

Nevertheless, they persisted.

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

“With the kids that had built them in the past, they didn’t have 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 kind of wrapped around ‘OK we need an assembly line,’ and so we’ve set that up and we’re really just getting going building rockets.”

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

Hundreds of NASA fans wait with baited breath, but in many ways, the celebration has already begun. Because even if the launch fails, even if the circuitry shorts or the explosives fizzle out, NASA has already done what they needed to do through the effort of it all. They’re not just here to win, they’re here to inspire, and they know they’ve already succeeded.

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