​'One Giant Leap': Elon reflects on Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years later

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 mission, members of the Elon community, like retired NASA engineer Wally Sawyer ’64, are remembering the moment the world first put man on the Moon.

The year was 1969. 

J. Earl Danieley was serving as Elon's sixth president. The university saw Eugene Perry '69 become its first African-American graduate. Meanwhile, the Elon campus, like the rest of the country, was entangled in protests over the Vietnam War. 

​And hundreds of thousands of miles away, one seemingly impossible mission brought a moment of unity across the nation. 

On July 16, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins set off on a mission into space aboard the Apollo 11 Saturn V launch vehicle. It was a mission experts only gave a 60 percent chance of success. 

Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon's surface. 

Wally Sawyer '64 and his wife, Rae

Back on Earth, Wally Sawyer '64 was working at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, as a junior engineer in the Aeronautics Directorate. While Sawyer, who was honored this year as a distinguished alumnus, said he did not play a direct role in the Apollo 11 mission, he will never forget the moment the lander dropped onto the moon's surface. 

"I think most everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when we landed on the moon. It was a momentous occasion," said Sawyer, who along with his wife, Rae, recently created the Rae and Wally Sawyer Annual Scholarship. "To be with my friends and family, glued to the television set watching Neil Armstrong take that first small step for man, brought total silence to our gathering, and then, there was an eruption of euphoria and pride in America and NASA's accomplishment."

Years later, Sawyer would transition to the Kennedy Space Research Center, where he became involved in the Space Shuttle Program during his 37-year career at NASA. He said the Apollo 11 mission gave him a new sense of pride in his work.

"If you happened to be part of NASA, in any gathering, everyone assumed you knew everything there was to know about the mission,” he said. “The truth is, most of us were spectators, but individually, we swelled with pride and doubled down on our dedication to be part of NASA's research mission in Space and Aeronautics."

Barry Bradberry '75

While Sawyer was working at NASA, a 16-year-old Barry Bradberry '75 was watching the landing intently.

"Everybody came home early and stayed up late for the landing," recalled Bradberry, associate dean of admissions and financial aid. He watched the landing at his Virginia Beach home, surrounded by neighbors because his house was the first in the area to have a color television.

"Everybody was just concerned that [the astronauts] got there and were able to come back. We had no idea what was going to happen," he said.

Bradberry said he felt “fortunate” to be able to witness the moment live and called it “a moment of instance.”

"[The astronauts] were like folk heroes," he said. "You think about baseball players and celebrities, but they were just on another level.  They were true American heroes. We need more American heroes." 

In 2007, inside Elon's McCrary Theatre, Buzz Aldrin shared the story of the Moon landing and inspiration for students hoping to make their own history. (Watch Aldrin's full address at Elon here.)

Aldrin told the crowd, "My wish is for each of you and your students to find the courage to risk the abyss, to set sail for the edge and find instead new worlds beyond imagination to dare to dream and reach for the stars."

Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon their return from the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. In 2011, the crew members were also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. 

News coverage of Elon's 1995 Commencement that featured astronaut Jim Lovell, veteran of the Apollo 13 mission, as speaker. 
​Elon has had other connections through the years to that first moon landing and those that followed. In 1995, astronaut Jim Lovell, a veteran of the famous and harrowing Apollo 13 mission, delivered the commencement address at Elon, the same year his team's story was made famous again through the film "Apollo 13," starring Tom Hanks. Elon scholars have also focused on the moon landing, including Professor of Communication Design Harlen Makemson, who in 2009 published the book, "Media, NASA and America's Quest for the Moon."

As Bradberry thinks back to what he felt while watching the Apollo 11 mission as a teenager in Virginia, he hopes to one day have that same feeling again.

"I think we need to go back. One more time," he said.